The Vegas Golden Knights were once known as the “Misfits.”
We’d consider them now more like the “Overachievers.”
It took just six seasons for the NHL’s latest desert-dwelling expansion team to earn the franchise’s first Stanley Cup championship, through a five-game triumph over the Florida Panthers in June.
The Golden Knights weren’t even Cup Final rookies, either. Vegas advanced to that stage in the organization’s inaugural 2017-18 campaign too (it lost to the Washington Capitals), further proof that while Vegas may have joined the NHL about 100 years into its existence, these Golden Knights wasted no time making their mark.
Despite Vegas’ short history, the club has undergone a number of roster and coaching changes in a short half-decade that culminated in it hoisting Lord Stanley’s chalice. Only six of the Golden Knights’ original “Misfits” — aka the first round of players selected in the 2017 expansion draft — remained when Vegas clinched its victory: Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson, Reilly Smith, Brayden McNabb, Shea Theodore and William Carrier. The club hasn’t stopped evolving since its inception.
How did the Golden Knights do it? What had to go wrong before so Vegas could finally get it right? And with one title under its belt, will Vegas go on to repeat with another Cup victory next summer?
We’re looking back at Vegas’ run to this most recent Cup Final (and its eventual victory) to break down why the Golden Knights will — and why they won’t — be able to do it all again in 2023-24.
It’ll be a fascinating journey to watch. One thing’s for sure, though. With Vegas, we know there won’t be a dull moment ahead.
Vegas hoists the Stanley Cup for the first time
The Vegas Golden Knights celebrate at the Stanley Cup presentation ceremony.
The Golden Knights didn’t wander into last season as obvious Cup contenders.
Vegas missed the playoffs entirely in 2021-22 through repeated, self-inflicted wounds. Their big in-season trade acquisition, Jack Eichel, struggled coming off neck surgery, and by April the tenor of the team was obvious disappointment and frustration over unfulfilled expectations.
That led to then-head coach Peter DeBoer being fired. Bruce Cassidy — just let go by the Boston Bruins — stepped in behind the bench. Then word came out in August that the club’s starting netminder, Robin Lehner, was likely done for the season following hip surgery.
It felt as though Vegas was at a turning point — but in which direction? The Golden Knights didn’t need long to answer.
Vegas opened October 2022 with an 8-2-0 record to cement itself as one of the Western Conference’s top contenders. And the Golden Knights never let up from there. They finished atop the Western standings with 111 points (51-22-9) and walked right into the postseason off a near-perfect 5-0-2 roll through April.
Eichel — fully healthy and back in form — led the Golden Knights with 27 goals and 66 points through 67 regular-season contents. But Vegas did damage by committee: Seven skaters had 15 or more goals, six surpassed the 60-point plateau and the Golden Knights paced the NHL in blocked shots per 60 minute (17.94), illustrating a ready appetite for bodily sacrifice.
Vegas was deservedly confident heading into the playoffs, and it immediately showed the resiliency required of a Cup champion. The Golden Knights lost Game 1 of their first-round playoff series against the Winnipeg Jets by a 5-1 margin, then bounced back with four straight victories to ground the Jets and advance to the second round.
The Edmonton Oilers awaited there, and Vegas split the first two contests. In Game 3, the Golden Knights lost starting goaltender Laurent Brossoit to a playoff-ending groin injury. Vegas turned then to backup Adin Hill, relying on the 27-year-old to backstop the team from there. Hill delivered, and Vegas sent the Oilers packing with a 4-2 series win.
In the Western Conference finals, Vegas faced off against DeBoer and the Dallas Stars. The first two games were overtime wins for the Golden Knights, but the Stars didn’t go quietly, pushing the series to an eventual sixth game that Vegas won 6-0 to reach the Cup Final against Florida.
The Panthers’ path to that point was more fraught than that of the Golden Knights: Florida had played 16 games by then (including nine rounds of overtime) compared to just 12 games (and five overtimes) for Vegas. The Golden Knights took an early 2-0 lead in the series, and while the Panthers responded with a Game 3 win, it was Vegas punching back with consecutive victories to win the Cup on home ice by a 9-3 result.
Vegas’ season came together through a confluence of factors rooted in a hundred decisions made over the previous six seasons. Cassidy proved to be a perfect fit in the Golden Knights’ organization by quickly and effectively establishing an identity for the club. The team as a whole managed to stay relatively healthy in the postseason, and its depth was off the charts (four players hit double-digit goal totals in the postseason; six had 15 or more points).
So what are the chances the Golden Knights can run it back with another title this season? Caesars Sportsbook has given Vegas the second-best odds (behind the Colorado Avalanche) to be the 2023-24 Stanley Cup champion. With the NHL draft and the bulk of free agency behind us, now’s the time to take a snapshot of those repeat title chances.
Point: The Golden Knights’ core remains intact
General manager Kelly McCrimmon and president of hockey operations George McPhee took great pains piecing Vegas together into the team we see now. It’ll look quite similar come fall, with those key players from the regular season and postseason returning to the fold.
Eichel (six goals, 26 points in the playoffs), Mark Stone (11 goals, 24 points), Chandler Stephenson (10 goals, 20 points), Marchessault (13 goals, 25 points) and Karlsson (11 goals, 17 points) remain. So do Theodore, McNabb, Alex Pietrangelo and Alec Martinez on defense. Each has become a cornerstone of Vegas’ success to date. Those players set a tone.
Hill will return too, after his star turn as Vegas’ No. 1 goaltender in the playoffs. He was sensational, posting an 11-4-0 record with a .932 save percentage and 2.17 goals-against average. In the Cup Final itself, Hill was 4-1 with a .923 SV%. Vegas smartly resigned Hill via a two-year, $9.8 million contract in June; he’ll enter the Golden Knights’ training camp on an inside track to be their starter once again.
Vegas’ chemistry was palpable all season long. It was clear how much the Golden Knights enjoyed playing together, and that intangible can’t be underestimated when a grinding 82-game campaign bleeds into an increasingly stressful postseason push. No new friends needed.
Counterpoint: Health could be an issue
Colorado learned the hard way.
After the Avalanche went on their own Cup-winning run in 2021-22, they too hoped to be poised for a repeat. The injury gods had other plans.
In the offseason following the Cup victory, captain Gabriel Landeskog underwent knee surgery and wound up missing the entire 2022-23 season. Cale Makar, Artturi Lehkonen and Nathan MacKinnon — all integral players on that Cup team — were sidelined by various ailments. The Avalanche didn’t have enough depth to keep up — they’d lost Nazem Kadri and Andre Burakovsky, among others, to free agency the previous summer — and Colorado fell short of its consecutive Cup goal.
The Golden Knights will aim to avoid a similar fate. But there’s a red flag or two worth watching out for, particularly with impact skaters who’ve been through the injury roller coaster already.
Stone himself has had two back surgeries in the past nine months. Eichel has never played a full 82-game season in his eight-year career. Goaltender Logan Thompson missed most of the second half of last season with a lower-body problem. And who knows what other procedures or issues players have been dealing with that we don’t know about.
It takes a good deal out of everyone on the path to a Cup victory. How Vegas survives the wear and tear of a long spring — and short summer — will have a direct effect on its prospects this year, too.
Point: Vegas’ ownership and management group want to win — at any cost
Golden Knights owner Bill Foley strives to be a man of his word.
He’s off to a good start.
Foley recounted for reporters last month how, when Karlsson agreed to an eight-year extension with Vegas in June 2019, he expected “three Stanley Cups” during the length of the contract.
“When we were on the ice [after the Cup victory] and getting our pictures taken,” Foley said, “I looked over at [Karlsson] and told him, ‘OK, you got one.'”
Vegas has four years — on Foley’s timeline anyway — to grab two more. And there’s no doubt Foley will give his executives every green light available to try and get there. McPhee and McCrimmon have a history of showing they’ll take advantage of opportunity.
McCrimmon has said repeatedly that while Vegas’ run to the Cup Final in its inaugural season wasn’t a fluke, the organization had to improve season over season to be where it’s at now, positioned as a perennial contender.
To make that a reality, the Golden Knights aren’t afraid to make hard — or unpopular — decisions. Last month Vegas traded Smith, an original Golden Knight, to Pittsburgh to free up enough cap space to sign Ivan Barbashev to a five-year, $25 million extension. Vegas previously acquired Barbashev from St. Louis at the trade deadline, and he was a force in the postseason, putting up seven goals and 18 points (Smith, by comparison, tallied four goals and 14 points).
McCrimmon & Co. don’t get bogged down by emotion. Smith was the first player to whom Stone handed the Cup after his initial captain’s lap, but moving him freed up cap space and got Vegas a third-round draft pick in return.
Counterpoint: Cap space could be an issue
At the moment, Vegas has $1,423,317 in cap space, according to Cap Friendly.
Now, that could change if and when the team shifts players to long-term injured reserve down the road (for example, Lehner spent all of this past year on LTIR with a hip issue, and his $5 million hit might end up there again depending on his current health status).
Like some other teams, the Golden Knights have gotten creative in the recent past in hurdling over any cap-related restraints. If there’s a loophole they can use to sign or keep a player, they will explore it in earnest.
However, the cap is what it is — and it’s increasing by a paltry $1 million this season (to hit $83.5 million). Should the Golden Knights not be able to capitalize on LTIR space like they have in the past, it could tie their hands when it comes to making in-season improvements. Having the team’s core dialed in is the ideal scenario, but as the Avalanche discovered, there must be room to adjust on the fly as well — or else.
Reality: It’s hard — but not impossible — to repeat
Just 16 NHL teams have won consecutive championships. Only Tampa Bay (in 2020 and 2021) and Pittsburgh (2016 and 2017) have managed to do it in the past 25 years.
There’s a long list of reasons for why that feat is so difficult. Fatigue plays a major role for many Cup-winning teams the following season. The league’s other 31 teams have had the chance to improve themselves over the past months and weeks, too. There’s a target on the back of champions. That can creep into any player’s head space and take hold — positively or negatively.
The mere pressure of attempting to repeat can derail that very attempt. It’s a collection of issues every former victor has had to navigate, and the vast majority fall short.
That’s not to say Vegas can’t be the exception. All things being equal, the Golden Knights should have a strong, motivated team going into the season. And Vegas has enjoyed defying the odds, whether in that first-season push to the Cup Final or by their willingness to take risks that ultimately paid off.
What’s the final verdict, then, on Vegas’ potential going 2-for-2? It’s easy to be high on its chances in July. On paper, the Golden Knights are obvious contenders you’d be hard-pressed to bet against.
But as every card player knows too well — tables can go from hot to cold in a blink. The Golden Knights best be well prepared for a fight starting this fall.