Las Vegas can be an entry point into the game for casual fans, and a reason for the die-hards who only care about their team to watch the Stanley Cup Final.
James Carey Lauder-USA TODAY Sports
The Vegas Golden Knights reaching the 2018 Stanley Cup Final in their first year of existence is the best thing to happen to the NHL since Wayne Gretzky’s parents purchased a pair of hockey skates when he was 2 years old. To view the most compelling and fascinating story in league history in any other manner is to cheat yourself out of the vicarious pleasure no professional sports team will offer again in your lifetime.
Every player on the Knights roster was considered expendable by their former teams and discarded in one way or another. Nobody—NOBODY—gave this team a shot. Because of a trademark dispute with the Army concerning their logo, playing a regular-season game without sweaters seemed more likely than Vegas winning 30 games. Tweak a couple storylines, change some countries of origin, and set this tale in 1980 and this is a movie starring Kurt Russell and that guy from The Americans.
But this isn’t a story about national pride; it’s about a problem that has hindered the NHL for as long as it has existed that may finally be fixable.
Most fans don’t give three wet farts about any team besides their own, and seeing a first-year expansion franchise march toward a championship is stirring feelings of anger and jealousy. THEY SHOULD GO THROUGH THE PAIN I HAVE FELT FOR YEARS BEFORE GETTING A FAINT WHIFF OF SUCCESS! But now is the time to put petty tribalism aside and embrace the story that has the potential to create a needed bridge from niche to national sport.
The Knights winning the Stanley Cup is good for everyone, from the league itself to fans of the Florida Panthers.
Some have invented the idea that the Golden Knights were unfairly gifted this roster, that favorable expansion draft rules led to Vegas receiving advantages they did not deserve. They are using this flawed rationale to conjure hatred toward Vegas. The level of delusional hindsight at work here is a lot like this Golden Knights season in that neither has ever been witnessed in professional sports history and we should all stand in awe of it.
There are fans stewing in jealous juices because the NHL set up a system that led to a professional hockey team that features Deryk Engelland and Brayden McNabb among the squad's ice time leaders in the postseason and Luca Sbisa logging the fifth-most minutes of any Golden Knight during the regular season. Ryan Reaves scored the series-clinching goal against Winnipeg. You wouldn’t have invited those players to join your beer league team unless there was a court order.
Four players have carried the Golden Knights all season—Jonathan Marchessault, Reilly Smith, William Karlsson, and Marc-Andre Fleury — and they all could have been had in June by any interested team in the league. The Penguins sweetened the deal by trading a second-round pick to Vegas to ensure the Knights took Fleury in the expansion draft, getting him off their books and to a city where his value was more as a spokesperson than a goaltender. Karlsson (along with a first- and third-round pick) was traded as a bribe so Knights GM George McPhee would take David Clarkson’s contract from the Blue Jackets. Marchessault, coming off a 30-goal season on a $750,000 contract, was a payoff by the Panthers so the Knights would take the more expensive Smith, a 20-goal scorer coming off a down year due mostly to an unlucky shooting season.
Your problem is not with the NHL and the expansion rules—it’s with the general managers and coaches that mismanaged and misjudged their rosters and facilitated trades that needlessly elevated the Knights to levels they would not have achieved with the draft alone. Remove those trades from the equation and the Knights would have sold James Neal at the deadline instead of mortgaging the future for Tomas Tatar.
And that’s why this is so good for you, the person trapped in Hell watching players you never wanted to see leave on the verge of achieving a dream without you—this is how change happens. Every Vegas victory has been another nail in the coffin in how teams will evaluate talent and how owners will evaluate general managers. Vegas is creating change inside your dysfunctional organization that otherwise would not have happened for years, if at all. You should be thanking Vegas.
Even if this Knights’ season doesn’t facilitate immediate changes—maybe Chuck Fletcher would have been fired by the Minnesota Wild anyway even if he hadn’t packaged Alex Tuch and Erik Haula—your favorite team will have its guard up when it’s time for the Seattle expansion draft in a couple years.
The Knights should also instill you with a new level of preseason optimism. “Hey, before the season, everyone has a shot at the Stanley Cup!” must have seemed like steaming bullshit for about 25 teams but the Knights have to make you believe anyone can win a Stanley Cup.
Even the Buffalo Sabres!
But nobody will benefit more than the NHL, the league that usually stumbles into anything this great by accident. The big difference between this and the buzz generated from John Scott at the 2016 All-Star Game is at no point did someone at the NHL call Golden Knights owner Bill Foley and tell him not to put a team in Vegas because it would embarrass his children. The NHL wanted a team in Vegas and now they have something that can be an entry point into the game for an average person and a reason for a die-hard fan that only cares about his or her team to watch the Stanley Cup Final.
The Golden Knights are an NCAA Cinderella story only their team isn’t fueled by unpaid labor and from a city you never heard of. No, the Knights don’t have a 98-year-old wheelchair-bound nun winning the hearts of casual fans, but Fleury should be the player that makes you open your cold heart and root for the Knights.
This guy's play in the postseason sabotaged the Penguins between 2010-2013, yet he’s so beloved in Pittsburgh that fans there would sooner blame their mothers for those four years of futility. And it’s all because Fleury is one of the nicest human beings in the NHL, so there would be something wonderful about him helping an expansion franchise win a Stanley Cup in its first year of existence and a playoff MVP along the way. It would simultaneously piss off and please Penguins fans, a level of confusion in a fan base I never knew I wanted until Sunday.
How can you root against this team of misfit toys, a team that has not brought an ounce of misery to your favorite team (Los Angeles, San Jose, and Winnipeg not included)? How are you not on board with a team that does a Medieval Times show before home games? How can you not identify with a collection of people who were all told they weren’t good enough now shoving that assessment down the throats of the hockey establishment? That doesn’t sound somewhat familiar to you?
Short of your own favorite team winning it all, this will be the most fun you will ever have watching a Stanley Cup Final, so don’t let it pass you by.
This post originally said Nashville had a right to hate Las Vegas, when it was actually San Jose. We've updated the post and regret both the error and inviting the city of Nashville to hate Las Vegas when it had no such right.