Greg Wyshynski, ESPNJun 13, 2023, 11:08 PM ET
- Greg Wyshynski is ESPN’s senior NHL writer.
“Playoffs in three. Cup in six,” the defenseman said with a grin, recalling the owner’s words back in 2017.
Then the Golden Knights went ahead and made the Stanley Cup Final in their inaugural season of 2017-18.
“After we did that, Bill said, ‘OK, now Stanley Cup in three.’ I don’t know if that got published,” forward Reilly Smith said.
From one perspective it was an understandable goal from an enthusiastic new owner. From another, Foley’s timeline was completely bonkers.
There had been only six franchises in NHL history that required six or fewer seasons to win their first Stanley Cup. Five of them won between the birth of the NHL and the repeal of prohibition in the U.S. The Toronto Maple Leafs were the first in 1918 when they were the Toronto Arenas. The O.G. Ottawa Senators (1920, third season), Montreal Maroons (1926, second season), New York Rangers (1928, second season) and Boston Bruins (1929, third season) would follow.
The other team was the 1984 Edmonton Oilers, winning in the franchise’s fifth NHL season. But the Oilers actually started as a franchise in 1972, arriving in the NHL after the World Hockey Association folded. Also, they had Wayne Gretzky.
But it’s not so bonkers now, after seeing the Golden Knights skate hockey’s holy grail in front of their euphoric fans on Tuesday night.
“I think the first year we got scared of losing it. And now we wanted to win it,” forward William Carrier said. “We’ve been through a lot the last couple years. We’ve been through it all.”
The Golden Knights have packed a lot into six seasons of existence, after entering the NHL as its 31st team in 2017. They are, essentially, hockey’s great startup company. A collection of misfits that created instant success and then faced the mounting pressure to grow from those carefree days into a thriving, sustainable company with 10 times growth.
It got real. Hearts were broken. Friendships were severed, as beloved founders were bid farewell.
“It sucks. It’s happened a lot here,” McNabb said. “But give them credit. They’re doing whatever they can to try and win.”
‘We’re Vegas — we’ve got to be different’
The difference between other NHL owners and Foley is like the difference between the manager of your local strip mall and Jeff Bezos: One builds for a modicum of success, while the other wants to rule the world.
The following are actual things Bill Foley has said about his NHL team:
“We want to be a global franchise. The visitors to Las Vegas can’t get a ticket because we’re sold out, but they’re going to buy gear. They’re going to be back in Shanghai wearing a Golden Knights hat.”
“My goal is to be a dynasty here. Not to win a Stanley Cup. Multiple Stanley Cups over several years.”
Foley was a self-taught investor while attending West Point. He devoured books about technical analysis. He read the Wall Street Journal each day to track around 30 stocks on his self-created charts in growth industries — like regional airlines, whose consolidation in the market made Foley a considerable profit.
His classmates expected he’d lose all his money. He didn’t … at least until Foley blew the money on “women and alcohol,” by his own admission.
Later in life, after a law degree and an MBA, he made enough money to pool it with other investors to buy what would become Fidelity National Financial, the biggest insurance title company in the U.S., as well as other businesses. His investment philosophy will sound familiar to anyone that’s followed the Knights: a “value buyer” who made around 80 acquisitions that Foley estimated were valued at $40 million that they paid $20 million to get.
“We were around the fringes,” Foley said.
Las Vegas is undeniably a sports town in 2023, with the Knights’ fortress — T-Mobile Arena — situated a short drive from the Raiders’ sleek Allegiant Stadium, seating over 80,000 fans combined for games. But it wasn’t a sports town when Foley got his inkling about owning a team there. It’s easy to forget how seemingly uninhabitable the Vegas sports landscape was in 2014.
For decades, it was the gambling aspect that kept professional leagues away. That stigma faded in the decade leading up to NHL expansion — although NHL commissioner Gary Bettman was clear that no betting should be available inside the Vegas arena and that their team name should steer clear of gambling references. The real question vexing owners from the NHL, NFL and beyond was whether this market could support a pro team.
Another Las Vegas owner might have taken the easy path to proving viability by fueling a ticket drive with casino commitments. The genius of Foley’s bid — and one reason the Knights exist today — is that it had 11,000 deposits for season tickets from non-casino sources.
Without a team yet. Without an arena built.
“People from Las Vegas wanted something more than the Strip. They wanted something that was theirs. So we tapped into that,” Foley said.
Getting the first pro franchise in Las Vegas, for a $500 million expansion fee, was Bill Foley’s first disruption. It created an immediate bond with fans in a way that relocated teams couldn’t, especially a vagabond franchise like the Raiders. The Knights adopted the slogan “Vegas Born” early in their existence.
Their relationship with the fans — immediately cemented through the team’s reaction to the Oct. 1, 2017, deadly mass shooting — has proved it’s more than a marketing ploy.
— z – Vegas Golden Knights (@GoldenKnights) June 13, 2023
— z – Vegas Golden Knights (@GoldenKnights) June 13, 2023
Branding is vital for any startup. Memorable name, eye-catching emblem, quotable slogan. Foley chose Vegas Golden Knights — “We’re Vegas, we’ve got to be different,” he said — and helped design their logo.
The shield represents how they defend the honor of the city. Foley said the Knight “protects the unprotected” — ironic, when one considers how vital the “unprotected” were to building this Stanley Cup champion.
‘We were prepared, I can tell you that’
Foley’s second great disruption was the expansion draft, where his management team took full advantage of the NHL’s liberal new rules.
Vegas entered the NHL during a time of expansion draft rule remorse. Imagine an owner paying millions to join an exclusive club and then getting to build a team from the four worst players on each roster. That’s what happened under the old NHL expansion rules that left teams such as the Nashville Predators and Columbus Blue Jackets without a playoff appearance for several seasons.
“I really think the NHL erred in how they treated the expansion teams, all the way up until Vegas,” former Nashville general manager David Poile told The Associated Press. “We made [the previous teams’] trek much more difficult than it needed to be.”
After Foley paid $500 million for entry, the NHL changed its expansion draft rules to make Vegas competitive off the hop: The Knights could draft the eighth-best forward, fourth-best defenseman or second-best goalie from each team.
Ahead of that draft, Foley had interviewed several potential general managers but instantly felt George McPhee, who had led the Washington Capitals for nearly 20 years, was his guy.
“He wanted to win and didn’t want anything to stand in his way of the Stanley Cup, period,” Foley said.
McPhee hired his scouts. Foley had oversight on other hockey operations jobs, signing off on assistant general manager Kelly McCrimmon. McPhee had a law degree. McCrimmon had a business degree.
“It was about putting the right people in place in our hockey operations department. We were prepared, I can tell you that. That’s the secret to our success,” Foley said.
McPhee and McCrimmon split the league in half. The new rules meant that teams would have to leave players they didn’t want to lose unprotected in the draft. The Knights had two undeniable advantages here: The leverage of the draft rules and a clean salary cap.
“They were ruthless and prepared,” one NHL source recalled.
The expansion draft was a moment of temporary insanity for many NHL general managers, and the Golden Knights exploited it. Consider the how the following players — now Stanley Cup champions — ended up in Vegas:
The Anaheim Ducks had to expose defensemen Josh Manson and Sami Vatanen. To entice Vegas to ignore them and select defenseman Clayton Stoner, the Ducks traded 21-year-old defenseman Shea Theodore to the Knights. He was second on the team in average ice time this postseason.
The Buffalo Sabres traded a sixth-round pick to Vegas so they’d select William Carrier in the draft instead of goalie prospect Linus Ullmark. Carrier was the key component of the Knights’ bruising checking line this postseason.
The Los Angeles Kings dangled veteran forwards Dustin Brown and Marian Gaborik in front of McPhee. Instead, he selected 26-year-old Brayden McNabb, who appeared in all but one playoff game in 2023.
The Columbus Blue Jackets traded their 2017 first-round pick and center William Karlsson to the Knights so they’d take David Clarkson’s contract instead of either forward Josh Anderson or goaltender Joonas Korpisalo. Karlsson was one of the most valuable players in this Cup run.
Finally, the Florida Panthers, in one of the most mind-boggling moves in NHL history, traded forward Reilly Smith to the Knights so Vegas would select 30-goal scorer Jonathan Marchessault in the draft; in turn, the Panthers could keep defensemen Mark Pysyk and Alex Petrovic. GM Dale Tallon said at the time that “you win championships with defense.” Turns out you also win them with Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith.
“You know what? I thought they were going to protect me,” Marchessault told ESPN this postseason. “I was surprised of the decision. But I mean, that’s just the way she goes sometimes. Keeps you honest.”
Jonathan Marchessault stays hot with a power-play goal
Jack Eichel makes a pinpoint pass to Jonathan Marchessault for the power-play goal as the Golden Knights lead 2-1.
Back then, the Knights knew they had won the draft. Even if they ended up trading these pieces, they did well.
The rest of us? We were so, so wrong about the draft. The sportsbooks had Vegas at 250-1 to win the Stanley Cup — the worst odds in the league. The actual Newsweek headline on the expansion draft:
“The Vegas Golden Knights Are Going To Suck in 2017-18 And Here’s Why”
What neither the team nor its critics realized: The foundation for this championship team was laid by McPhee and McCrimmon in that expansion draft.
Sometimes it was moves that led to future moves. Like when the Minnesota Wild sent top prospect Alex Tuch to the Knights so they’d select forward Erik Haula instead of players such as Matt Dumba or Marco Scandella. Tuch would be a key piece in the Jack Eichel trade in 2021. Other times, it was utilizing their cap space to acquire substantial talent immediately, like when Marc-Andre Fleury was selected from the Pittsburgh Penguins.
But the most important part of that championship foundation were the building blocks themselves. Foley had an edict for his management team: Find players that were “team effort, low ego, low maintenance.”
McNabb would add another trait to that list: ferocity.
“We were a ferocious team. We were playing fast, and it was hard on teams to keep up with us. And the belief set in,” McNabb said.
Marchessault said that remains the Knights’ mindset.
“The guys that have been here since day one, they’re all resilient guys and they work hard,” he said. “And I think that sets the tone and everybody that comes there and kind of jumps on the same schedule as us.”
The thing about a startup: Day 1 is the first day on the job for every employee. Those original Knights — cast aside by their teams for various reasons, and dubbed the “Golden Misfits” — all landed on the same roster together at the same time.
William Karlsson’s sweet pass sets up another Knights goal
William Karlsson makes a sweet pass to Reilly Smith for another Golden Knights goal.
They were truly the Island of Misfit Toys. In some ways, they remain that way today.
“We’re the guys that weren’t wanted,” coach Bruce Cassidy said, himself fired by the Bruins weeks before the Knights hired him last summer.
“They’re not walking into a room and saying, ‘Geez, these guys were drafted and developed here and I’m an outsider.’ They walk into a room where Marchessault and Smith and other guys have been through this,” he said. “So they have that togetherness or bond of maybe not being wanted the first time around by their teams.”
Of course, everyone’s wanted until they’re not.
‘What kind of carnage is left in their wake?’
It’s become a cliché part of startup culture: There are those founding members that love making money but really love having created something fun with their friends. The ones that wear Hawaiian shirts to the office instead of a suit jacket.
Eventually, the morose solemnity of capitalism extinguishes that freewheeling spirit. The pinball machines are moved out of the office. Movie night is canceled.
Or, in Vegas terms, Nate Schmidt gets traded.
Schmidt was an original Golden Knight, plucked from the Capitals in the expansion draft. Few players embodied the spirit of their team more than Schmidt: Underestimated on the ice, endearingly quirky away from it. In the COVID-19 playoff bubble, Schmidt was the unofficial president of the Golden Knights’ “Fun Committee,” which organized rooftop barbecues, a 12-on-12 kickball game, Mario Kart tournaments and, yes, player movie nights.
Less than a month after the Knights’ bubble run ended, Schmidt was traded to Vancouver.
McCrimmon, who had been elevated to Vegas general manager in 2019 while McPhee stepped up to a team president role, said he and the Knights management decided that landing a top-pairing defenseman was a priority while watching them fall short in the bubble.
“When you looked at the teams that were winning, we felt we needed a No. 1 defenseman. Like a Victor Hedman. Like an Alex Pietrangelo,” he said. “To be a Stanley Cup-contending team, we had to be better there. So we were in aggressive in free agency.”
As it turns out, there was an Alex Pietrangelo type available — the actual Alex Pietrangelo, who couldn’t come to contract terms with the St. Louis Blues. He was open to Vegas as an option, and the team aggressively courted him.
“It’s always a big change when you change cities, especially for a family,” Pietrangelo said. “[The Knights] want to make life as easy as possible for our families and us so that we can worry about doing our job.”
But as one family arrives, another one leaves. Foley was concerned team chemistry might suffer without Schmidt. But McPhee and McCrimmon sold Foley on Pietrangelo, and the necessity to move Schmidt’s contract off the cap to make room for him.
Schmidt, Fleury, Paul Stastny, Max Pacioretty, coach Gerard Gallant … at one point, all essential Knights. But the turnover of their roster has been a hallmark of the franchise.
“It happened right after that first year, right? Those were some of the biggest changes,” McNabb said. “You kind of just understand the business. You get close to guys, become close friends. The longer you play in this league, the more you know that it’s just the way it is.”
But at what cost?
It’s not that the Knights made these moves. Every team does. It’s how they made them that’s the problem for some.
“What kind of carnage is left in their wake?” one NHL source asked.
Schmidt was traded to Vancouver on Oct. 12, 2020, the same day Pietrangelo signed in Vegas. The Knights never hinted that he could be moved. No heads-up to an original Misfit. He found out he was traded when the trade was completed.
“It was a tough pill to swallow,” a distraught Schmidt said at the time.
Also tough: their treatment of Fleury.
He was the face of the franchise, and the team’s first true star, leading them to the Stanley Cup Final in their inaugural season and winning the Vezina Trophy in 2020-21.
The story of Fleury’s slow divorce with the Knights is hockey lore now, including when his agent Allan Walsh infamously tweeted an image of the goalie with a sword in his back — adorned with the name of then-Vegas coach Pete DeBoer.
Appearing on “The Cam & Strick Podcast” in 2021, Foley sought to quiet speculation about Fleury’s future with the team amid rather loud trade rumors. He told a story about being in an elevator with Fleury and his wife during the inaugural season.
“I told him, ‘You’re going to retire here.’ He said, ‘What do you mean?’ I said, ‘This is going where you’re going to be. You’re going to love Vegas. Vegas is going to love you.’ I feel like I made a commitment to him at that point.”
The Fleury debacle was when the Knights lost their innocence. People around the league started to take notice. What motivated some of these decisions? Personality conflicts? Bad cap management? Did the team have too many clients from sports agency Newport Sports — including Robin Lehner and Pietrangelo — that influenced their moves? Did they care about the toll on player morale?
McCrimmon’s counterargument is that they’ve actually shown “tremendous loyalty” to the six original Misfits that remain on the roster.
“A lot of people forget that. If you go back to 2017, not a lot of people have more than six players from their core group from then,” he said.
He believes every move was in service of improving the team. Gallant, the coach that led the Knights to the Cup Final in 2018? Foley and the team management made a collective decision that he wasn’t what the team needed to win the Cup. In fact, that first season was seen more and more as an anomaly.
“No disrespect or disregard to the Year 1 team, but we felt we caught lightning in a bottle,” McCrimmon said.
So the team that was built on the discarded players of other franchises had to become the one that killed its own darlings.
“They could have easily gotten to the same place [they are now] by treating people the right way,” an NHL source said. “No one begrudges people making tough decisions. But be honest with your players about where they stand.”
With disruption comes mistakes. With disruption comes pain.
But in the end, it built a champion.
‘The guys really love each other’
Defenseman Alec Martinez joined the Knights in the 2019-20 season, back when there was still a “Fun Committee.” He won two Stanley Cups with the Los Angeles Kings and helped Vegas reach the playoffs’ penultimate round two times before breaking through this season.
“Every playoff has a different story,” he said. “Each round has a different story. Each season has its own story.”
Someone in the Vegas locker room told Martinez he sounded poetic.
“Normally I just stick to poop jokes. So you caught me in a rare moment.”
The Golden Knights players are not their team’s managerial decisions. The latter can be soulless and calculated; but while the players aren’t the Golden Misfits of yore, there’s palpable chemistry.
They have fun. It’s just a different kind of fun.
“Ever since I was traded here, we had a lot of really good players and a lot of really good guys. And this year, we have a couple characters in the locker room that have been added. That certainly adds that camaraderie side of it,” Martinez said. “I know it’s cliché, but we genuinely really enjoy hanging out with each other. And I’ve never been a part of a successful team that hasn’t been that way. If you don’t have that feeling off the ice, then it’s going to carry over and you’re not going to have that feeling on the ice. So I genuinely think the guys really love each other.”
Vegas restores the 2-goal lead
Alec Martinez nets a top-shelf goal to give the Knights back their two-goal lead.
It’s not a rambunctious startup anymore. But to hear the players tell it, it’s a nice place to work.
“It’s fun to come to the office every day. We enjoy it. Even when things aren’t going well, we still enjoy each other as people, which is a good thing,” Pietrangelo said. “There are days when you don’t want to go out [on the ice]. But when you keep the energy up with each other, that kind of keeps it going.”
Cassidy believes that chemistry starts in Summerlin.
Located partly inside the Vegas city limits, with the Red Rock Canyon to the west, Summerlin is a planned community where Foley built the team’s state-of-the-art practice facility. It’s also where, basically, the entire team has houses.
“One thing I’ve learned in Vegas is that everyone lives in Summerlin, which is about 25 minutes away. So the bonding is happening a little because everyone’s in the same community,” Cassidy said. “The guys are sharing rides. The wives are together, you know what I mean? It’s not like a big city where everyone’s going in a different direction as soon as practice is over. It’s a little bit unique maybe [compared] to some other markets. I think that’s helped. I think the guys just genuinely like each other. You don’t always get that. We have it. And most of the good teams find a way to have it.”
Vegas is a good team. It’s been a good team. They have the sixth best regular-season points percentage (.632) and the second most playoff wins (53) of any team since entering the NHL.
Carrier said a lot of that success has to do with how the teams are constructed.
“I think since Day 1 they built the team to have guys that play the right role, right? There are no skill guys on the fourth line trying to push up,” he said. “It’s a credit to them, building teams year after year.”
Colin Miller, an original Golden Knight who saw them defeat his Dallas Stars in the Western Conference finals this year, was once part of that depth. He said Vegas was good at identifying players in other organizations, and giving them the chance to excel.
“Sometimes these guys are great players, but they just don’t get the opportunity elsewhere,” he said.
But it’s not like the Knights are a bunch of grunts. They have Pietrangelo and Mark Stone. They have Eichel, a franchise player in Buffalo.
Cassidy said the egos in the room have been held in check, but the magnitude of the star power on the roster isn’t ignored. “It’s about the crest on the front, not the name on the back, and you can still have respect for what they’ve accomplished. So there’s always that balance,” he said.
Eichel arrived in November 2021. Again, the Knights collected someone’s unwanted. The Sabres weren’t going to allow him to have the artificial disk replacement surgery that Eichel wanted for his injured neck, as no NHL player had ever had the procedure.
The ugly power struggle between Eichel — who had previously requested a trade — and the team led to him being traded. Calgary and other teams were in the mix. Vegas wasn’t about to allow him to slip away, and were willing to have him get the surgery
“It means the world here. I mean, can’t say enough good things about this whole organization,” Eichel said. “Obviously everything that they did to allow me to get back to playing, but just even the way that they take care of you. It really feels like a big family and everyone cares for each other and they really look out for you. The people at the top do so much for this organization. And it just trickles down. And we feel the love in here as a team, and I feel really proud to be a part of this organization.”
The Knights had two great defensemen in Pietrangelo and Theodore. They had a tremendous two-way center in Karlsson. Eichel gave them something they never had before, which was a bona fide No. 1 center.
“One of the things our scouts really admired about Jack is his competitiveness. That’s really been on display in the playoffs. Jack didn’t have that opportunity in Buffalo along the way,” McCrimmon said. “Jack was a young captain in Buffalo. Jack gets to be here in a room of really good leaders.”
Of course, any discussion of Eichel, who makes $10 million annually, is a discussion of the Golden Knights’ salary cap gymnastics. Vegas has manipulated the system since it added its first player in 2017, and worked the rules to win a Stanley Cup today.
Jealousy is, at times, the prevailing emotional reaction to the Golden Knights’ instantaneous success: The concept of the “long suffering Vegas fan” has been a running joke in NHL cities, especially those Canadian ones mired in a desert-like Stanley Cup drought.
Take their salary cap situation. Larry Brooks of the New York Post recently argued that the “greatest weapon” the Golden Knights and the Seattle Kraken were awarded upon entry into the NHL weren’t the liberal expansion rules, but their pristine salary cap space.
“If right now teams could renounce their rosters in exchange for $83.5M in cap space entering this offseason, how many do you think would stand pat with current personnel and how many would opt to begin again?” Brooks wrote.
McPhee had something he never had with the Capitals in the salary cap era: a clean slate. While his contemporaries had to maneuver through being victims of their own success, McPhee had the opportunity to terraform his own financial landscape.
That victimhood would eventually befall the Knights. They weren’t immune from financial mistakes. Much of the pain caused by the departure of beloved players was directly related to them being capped out. But they also stickhandled their way around the problems.
Stone makes $9.5 million annually, a salary that was buried on long-term injured reserve from February through the start of the playoffs, which enabled the Golden Knights to add more salary at the trade deadline. Stone was activated from injured reserve in time for Game 1 of their first-round series against the Winnipeg Jets on April 18 — five days after he missed the finale of their regular season, a.k.a. the last game in which they had to worry about being cap-compliant.
“He had back surgery and there was just as likely a chance his career was at risk as there was [that] he’d be back for the playoffs,” McCrimmon told the Las Vegas Review Journal in April. “To suggest this was orchestrated and timed out is inaccurate and disrespectful to Mark and the organization.”
Mark Stone strikes first for Vegas in Game 5
Mark Stone notches a short-handed goal to give the Golden Knights a 1-0 lead over the Panthers.
The salary cap has always existed for two reasons: To limit player compensation and for team executives to find ways within that system to go above the cap. McCrimmon feels every team does it. Like, for example, when teams pick up a percentage of a player’s salary to facilitate a trade.
“But nobody complains about that,” he said. “And we’ve made those deals.”
According to Cap Friendly, the Knights have a total cap hit of $96,459,761. They had $13,959,761 of it stashed on long-term injured reserve at season’s end. The NHL salary cap was $82.5 million this season.
Some of that LTIR money comes from Lehner. The Knights announced on August 11, 2022, that Lehner would miss the entire season due to hip surgery. The free agent frenzy had waned. The Knights didn’t have the cap space to scramble for a starter, like the Colorado Avalanche did the year prior in acquiring Darcy Kuemper after Philipp Grubauer left for Seattle.
They ended up using five different goaltenders. One of them was Adin Hill.
Sean Burke, the Knights’ director of goaltending, knew Hill from their days together with the Arizona Coyotes. His contract was cheap. He was available, due to a crowded crease in San Jose. He could help.
And now he’s a Stanley Cup champion.
“If you ask any player in the NHL who’s ever won a Cup, I guarantee you, besides having kids and getting married, it’s one of the top moments of their life,” Hill said. “In my career, as a child growing up, you face adversity. You get cut from teams or don’t make the team you wanted to. Everybody’s got bumps in the road. It’s just a matter of sticking to the plan. To not change your course of action.”
Adin Hill stretches out for an amazing save
Adin Hill robs the Panthers of a goal in the third period with an incredible save.
Adin Hill brings this Knights tale full circle. He was the spare part. The extra body. The talented player that couldn’t get the chance in Arizona or San Jose to become what he’s been in these playoffs. A player that embodies what the franchise has done in these six seasons: Sticking to the plan, no matter the bumps.
He might not have been a Golden Misfit, but he might as well have been. The goalie whose teammates mobbed him at the final buzzer was that chip-on-the-shoulder player that helped define the franchise.
The misfit won.
The Misfits won.
Cup in six.