The Vegas Golden Knights Are Here to Stay

How Vegas went from a risky ploy to the NHL’s model franchise.

The sky is falling, the “hockey men� are crying, Lady Liberty is cloaked in charcoal, and the Golden Knights — an expansion team with a Gila monster for a mascot — are runner-ups for the Stanley Cup in their very first season in existence.

Only in Vegas.

After just a single year, the Golden Knights have changed what it means to be an expansion franchise, and are poised to be far more than just a one-hit wonder. What once seemed like a risky foray into the Nevada desert has become the model for new teams to follow, and raises questions about whether or not other nontraditional markets could have been just as successful if they hadn’t thought like ‘traditional’ hockey franchises. It’s that innovation on and off the ice that has Vegas riding high, and while it seemed crazy to think about even a year ago, Vegas has ushered in a new era of the NHL, looking poised to become the flagship of the league, and the signature franchise of Gary Bettman’s NHL tenure.

Let’s start with the hockey part.

- Advertisement - 
 

In just one season, Vegas has run roughshod through the league, embarrassing the other 30 NHL GMs, most of them “hockey men� of the sport’s well established old-boys club. Those GMs had a chance to protect their 9 (or more) best assets, as well as any of their first and second-year players from the Knights, and still somehow managed to seed them a team that made them one of the best in the league. While a lot of the blame deservedly falls on opposing GMs, Vegas GM George McPhee did a masterful job of hoarding assets and creating an organization that has a pristine (minus that currently ugly looking Tomas Tatar acquisition) salary structure and depth where none previously existed. Here’s the complete list of over-30 players that the Knights have under contract for next season:

Fleury (@ $5.75M)

Pierre-Edouard Bellemare (@ $1.45M)

Deryk Engelland (@ $1.5M)

That’s it.

None of those players are signed beyond next season, nobody will make more than Fleury’s $5.75, and only Tatar also makes more than $5 mil (Clarkson’s 5.25 for 3 more years doesn’t count towards the cap). McPhee pulled this off despite taking on supposed ‘rejects’ and ‘cast-offs’, by gaming the system in a way nobody thought he could, which included pulling the wool over the eyes of the second biggest factor in Vegas’ early success on the ice: Florida Panthers’ GM Dale Tallon.

The Knights clearly owe a debt of gratitude to Tallon. After being credited for not completely screwing up a first and third overall pick and massive cap space in Chicago, ol’ Dale migrated to Florida and managed to turn two productive 26-year-old forwards into a single, measly fourth-round draft pick. He also gifted the franchise Gerard Gallant, the team’s head coach and taxi enthusiast. Gallant was just six months removed from a runner-up finish for the Jack Adams Award when he got canned by the Panthers’ organization to move Tallon back into the GM role. The Knights plucked him up (clearly realizing that if Tallon didn’t want him, he must be good), and he immediately rewarded that faith, morphing back into a coach of the year candidate.

Let’s go back to those two 26-year-olds, though. All Dale Tallon had to do, by the league’s expansion draft rules, to protect both Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith, was to protect one less defenseman. Instead, the Panthers chose to keep both Mark Pysyk and Alex Petrovic, two household names that combined for a whopping 29 points and -10 combined in 159 games this season. (They did throw lots of HITZ though!) Whether for hockey reasons or (more likely) money reasons, the Panthers decided not only to protect these two players (who, based on the numbers of defensemen available to Vegas, likely would have been safe), but to pay the Knights an extra asset in the process. In doing so, they lost not only Smith, a two-time 50 point man (and advanced stats darling), but also Marchessault, who scored 30 goals the previous season while being signed for just $700,000. That put him in the company of players like Wayne Simmonds, Filip Forsberg and TJ Oshie.

There are multiple other similar stories, where GMs saw the Expansion Draft not as an exercise in making their team as strong as possible, but instead an opportunity to either save their owner some money or free themselves of a bad contract. That’s how the Knights managed to snag their best scorer, William Karlsson, as well as a veritable cornucopia of draft picks over the 2017–2020 drafts. Herein lies one of the other keys that have the Knights set up to dominate for the foreseeable future: their overwhelming draft capital.

While a good chunk of that was spent on the 2017 draft, the team still has a dizzying array of extra picks in the next 3 drafts, via Cap Friendly:

2018: 4th — Pittsburgh, 4th — Vancouver, 5th — Carolina, 6th — Toronto

2019: 2nd — Columbus, 3rd — Nashville, 3rd — Winnipeg, 5th — Montreal

2020: 2nd — Dallas, 2nd — Pittsburgh

Most of these picks were various bribes to take/not take certain players in the expansion draft. My personal favorites are the 2nd and 4th from Pittsburgh (and “hockey guy� Jim Rutherford) to take Vezina finalist Marc-Andre Fleury, and the 2nd Columbus packaged with Karlsson to get Vegas to take on David Clarkson’s contract. This gives Vegas a huge jump-start on their prospect pipeline, as well as setting them up to be a giant in future seasons, with the ability to throw picks around to acquire mature talent while still having a full complement of picks in the draft left over (like they did this year with Tatar).

Speaking of capital, the Knights have something available to few other teams: oodles of cap space and the willingness to ‘weaponize’ it. We’ve already seen them do this when they took on Clarkson, Smith and Mikhail Grabovski in order to acquire other assets (namely, Karlsson, Marchessault, a 1st and a 2nd). They’ve indicated a willingness to keep using this strategy in the future, and they’ve also been able to use some of it to give Marchessault a rich $5 million per year extension. Meanwhile, the team has cunningly loaded up on short-term contracts with the older players they acquired, and currently have over $24 million of space for next season.

Off the ice, Vegas has demonstrated a similar blend of aptitude and serendipity. The franchise aggressively and creatively markets their product in ways the league hasn’t really seen before (yes NHL, there are multiple ways to enjoy watching hockey). Through a mix of irreverence, humour and risk-taking, the Knights quickly ingrained themselves in the Vegas community.

First, let’s talk about the things VGK did right. While they rub some ‘traditional hockey people’ the wrong way, the team’s social media presence immediately earned the title of best in the league. On both Twitter and Instagram, the team excels at some of the key aims of corporate social media; namely the level of interaction, the volume of traffic, the amount of behind the scenes insight and the use of humor. Those hokey pop culture references that annoy you? Research shows that the level of relatability and humor drives engagement. In short, social media has been an immensely effective tool for the team.

The Knights’ marketing team also realized that there was a whole region without hockey ties, and went after them. After the expansion draft, the Knights undertook a large scale bus tour through Utah, Montana and Idaho, hitting small but underserved markets to establish their presence in the community. This showed ambitious targeting, to the scale that no other sunbelt team ever undertook as they were establishing themselves.

The team did a phenomenal job promoting themselves within Vegas itself, executing very “Vegas�-esque promotions, and showing a great understanding of how their product could fit into the city’s personality. This includes their recent promotion to give a free (permanent) VGK tattoo to anyone who wanted one at their first home playoff game…which, while pretty cool in any situation, crosses over to brilliance when you consider this: who hasn’t gotten or almost gotten a regrettable tattoo in Vegas? Showgirls and celebrities are a regular presence at the team’s games, and there are numerous packages available combining tickets with various other entertainment options in the city.

To the envy of teams league-wide, it isn’t just the games that have become a draw — they’ve also made their practices into must-see events. Every single home practice is open to the public and done up in true Vegas style. Fans are given the equivalent of playoff towels, there is a live DJ spinning the whole practice, and there are 14-and-under autograph sessions after every one. Word is that the Knights are averaging 4–5000 fans at their practices! What a brilliant way to constantly create interest, connection and access for their fans.

All success stories are a combination of skill and circumstance, and there’s no exception here. It turns out that many people greatly underestimated the potential of the market, and we’ve seen the Knights greatly benefit from the opportunity. Yes, Las Vegas is on the smaller side for a pro market, has a lot of transients, is located in a desert and has never supported a pro sports franchise at the highest level. It seemed like a strange fit. What we missed, however, was the motivation of a community that has never had a relevant sports franchise to call their own (sorry, CFL), rally around and draw some of their identity from.

We’ve instead seen a market that has shown a great appetite for the entertainment value of the product, creating what appears to be a rabid fanbase. The team has a great new venue, in a fantastic location right on the strip between New York, New York; and the venue formerly known as the Monte Carlo. Yes, that’s right, the Knights managed to establish a partnership with the biggest of casino giants, MGM Resorts. This loose partnership allows them use of T-Mobile Arena, while the company rebranded the Monte Carlo as Park MGM, creating further buzz around the area. It’s also provided us with the amazing image of the Statue of Liberty (miniature Vegas version) draped in a massive Knights jersey.

One more tragic bit of opportunity for VGK is the elephant in the room; the horrific massacre just blocks from the Knights arena on the Strip, and just days before the Knights’ inaugural game. All of a sudden, a hurting community looking for something to rally around had it. The Knights handled this situation with class, honoring the fallen by retiring number 58 (the number of victims of the massacre) before they even played a game. This unfortunate circumstance likely helped to entrench the Knights as the face of the community.

As we can see, the Vegas Golden Knights are the result of a perfect storm of opportunity and capitalization. They’ve done a masterful job so far on the business side, and have benefited from early success and opportune timing, already establishing themselves as a big part of the NHL canon. Most importantly, though, Vegas has thrust a stake right into the heart of the bullshit “The NHL can’t succeed in the Sun Belt� narrative that persists entirely because of awful ownership and uninspired marketing. On the surface, Vegas is the worst market to run a hockey club in the league…but by embracing nontraditional methods to capture a nontraditional market, the Golden Knights are showing that, while hockey can survive in many major markets, old school hockey thinking can’t. It also makes it clear that we shouldn’t have the slightest ounce of sympathy for any NHL club struggling to sell tickets while complaining about the limitations of their market (particularly in a Canadian market…looking at you, Ottawa).

It’s clear that the Golden Knights’ franchise is completely set for the future, on and off the ice, looking like a blooming giant for the league. They promote their product and have structured their roster better than just about anyone in the league. It’s a good thing they have, too, as there are only so many more deserts for commissioner Bettman to expand to. Still pressing is the impending arrival of the NFL in town, which poses a massive looming threat on the franchise in the lesser league. I was certainly one of the sceptics as to how the Knights could possibly develop the staying power to survive that infringement. Yet, somehow, the Knights have carved out a perfect blend of personality, aggressive promotion and not-having-Mark-Davis-as-an-owner that gives the impression that the Raiders are on thinner ice than the Knights.

Gord Randall
Gord Randall
Gord Randall is a senior writer and podcast host for Grandstand Central, who is a high school teacher by trade. He is also the lead analyst on “Krown Countdown U� on CHCH TV and CBCSports.ca. In his spare time, he also is the head coach of a high school football program in Vancouver, BC.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

Trending

The Latest

cupping therapy

What is “cupping therapy” and does it actually work?

Cupping therapy came into the public eye when Olympian Michael Phelps was seen with circular bruise-type marks on his scapula (shoulder blade), neck, and shoulder. 

U.S. Women’s Soccer Wouldn’t Be Where it is Today without Jill Ellis

Jill Ellis has the most successful coaching career in all soccer history and after two consecutive World Cups, she's saying goodbye.
wendy hilliard gymnastics

Wendy Hilliard On Making Gymnastics Accessible

Plus, the meaning of life after sports.

The Rise of Major League Eating, America’s New Favorite Pastime

Major League Eating made competitive eating a successful, nation-wide sport and it all trails back to a hot dog eating contest from way back when.
Art Shamsky Amazin' Mets

Art Shamsky on Aging and the Amazin’ Mets

Plus, his thoughts on the Hall and missing out on the Big Red Machine.
The Saints Entertainment All-Stars

The Circus Surrounding Baseball in St. Paul

Don't be surprised if the Saints' Entertainment All-Stars steal the show at the 2019 American Association All-Star Game at CHS Field in St. Paul.

get the latest stories about the intersection of sports with money, power and media.