Vegas Golden Knights general manager George McPhee outsmarted his 30 NHL counterparts and put together a team that, in its inaugural season, is four wins away from winning the Stanley Cup.
That has prompted this question from frustrated fans of the local hockey team: How can an expansion club be so good so fast, while the Flyers haven’t won a Stanley Cup since Gerald Ford was in the White House in 1975?
There are numerous reasons, including the unmatched teamwork the Golden Knights have displayed. They were thrown together by circumstances and, to McPhee’s credit, he not only plucked on-the-way-up players from teams, but he also selected character guys who play for each other and not for individual statistics.
Most of the players bought homes 15 miles outside the Strip in Summerlin, a family-type neighborhood close to the team’s practice rink. The players have gone out of their way to get to know each others’ families, not just each other. That togetherness, as corny as it sounds, has been on full display on the ice.
“No one even thinks about putting himself before the team,” said former Flyer Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, a fourth-line Vegas center and penalty killer.
In addition, the Golden Knights have embraced the “misfits” label, telling anyone who will listen that nobody wanted them. Truth is, many were wanted by their previous teams — like the Flyers and Bellemare. But protection spots were at a premium. Teams were allowed to protect only either (A) seven forwards, three defensemen, and one goalie, or (B) eight skaters and one goalie. (All first- and second-year professionals were exempt from being selected.)
In any event, the Knights, who will host Washington in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals on Monday, have blossomed much faster than anyone could have expected. Thirteen of their players had career highs in points, led by William Karlsson (78 points, 53 more than his previous best) and Jonathan Marchessault (75 points, 24 more than his previous best).
But the biggest reason the Knights are still playing and the Flyers aren’t is this: Goaltending, goaltending, goaltending.
Put Marc-Andre Fleury on the Flyers and they might still be playing.
Vegas’ defense, which includes an undrafted player (Nate Schmidt) on its top pairing and players who were selected in the fifth (Colin Miller) and sixth rounds (aging Deryk Engelland) of their respective drafts, is not as strong as the Flyers’.
At least on paper.
Fleury, however, has made the defensemen look better than they are.
McPhee made a lot of shrewd picks in the expansion draft, but choosing Fleury was his best selection.
“Marc-Andre’s availability,” McPhee said, “changed everything for us.”
A dominating goalie can erase a lot of mistakes made by his teammates. The unflappable Fleury, who won three Stanley Cups with the Penguins, has done just that. He is 33, playing as if he’s 23, and, if the Knights do the unthinkable and beat Alex Ovechkin’s Capitals to win the Cup, he will undoubtedly win the Conn Smythe Trophy as this year’s best playoff performer. In the first three rounds, he is 12-3 with a 1.68 goals-against average and .947 save percentage.
Goaltending, goaltending, goaltending.
Brian Elliott was steady, and the Flyers played reasonably well when he was in the nets. But he was far from a difference-maker. Fleury was. And still is. Fleury finished tied for No. 1 in the regular season in GAA (2.24) among goaltenders who played at least half their team’s games. He was second in save percentage at .924.
By comparison, Elliott was in the middle of the pack in goals-against average (2.66) and in the bottom third in save percentage (.909).
The Flyers and Knights were also vastly different in special teams. Vegas, with Bellemare playing a key role, was 11th on the penalty kill with an 81.4 percent success rate. The Flyers were a sickly 29th, killing just 75.8 percent. The Knights (ninth) also had a better power play than the Flyers (15th), even though the players on Philadelphia’s unit obviously had a lot more familiarity together.
Before their magical season started, Vegas owner Bill Foley thought the Knights could make the playoffs in three years and perhaps win a Cup in their sixth season.
He underestimated his team. He also undervalued the NHL’s too-generous expansion-draft rules that allowed teams to protect just one goaltender.
Fleury has made a mockery of those rules, and shown 30 other general managers — Ron Hextall included — that they had better have a dominating goaltender if they want to be considered a serious Cup contender.
Hextall might have a future gem in Carter Hart or perhaps Felix Sandstrom. If he doesn’t, all the other moves will just be window dressing.