It’s a similar feeling to last year’s crushing seven-game loss to the San Jose Sharks in the first round. But the fact that fans had such high hopes is remarkable for a franchise that just completed its third season.
The playoff disappointments should not take away from what has been accomplished, namely that the Knights have put together arguably the strongest first three seasons in NHL history, appearing in the playoffs all three seasons, including in the Stanley Cup Final two years ago.
That Cinderella run remains as difficult to believe now as it was then.
Arguments can be made regarding where Las Vegas’ NHL team should be ranked on the list of top expansion franchises. But the major point is the Knights are deep in that conversation, something that wouldn’t have been expected when the 2017-18 season began.
The quick success they’ve had was not necessarily by design.
“We’re not an organization that’s solely focused on winning next year,” Knights general manager Kelly McCrimmon said. “We’re trying to build a really strong organization that’s got good depth throughout and … uses the strength of our pro scouting staff and our amateur scouting staff, which are really important parts of our organization. That’s our objective. That’s how we build our team for today. That’s how we build our team for tomorrow.”
So how does their start stack up compared to other expansion teams?
The closest somewhat recent example are the St. Louis Blues, who were created in 1967 and made the Stanley Cup Final in each of their first three seasons. That sounds astounding, but is deceiving.
When the NHL doubled its size by adding six teams, the league created an entire second division. The winner was guaranteed a spot in the championship series.
The Blues, who won that division, were overmatched by the time they reached the final. They were swept each year — twice by the Montreal Canadiens and once by the Boston Bruins.
Had the divisions been mixed between old and new teams, the Blues’ path to the final would have been much more difficult.
The New York Rangers are a better comparison to the Knights. They were added in 1926 and appeared in the playoffs their first nine seasons and 15 of their first 16, winning the Cup in 1928, 1933 and 1940.
There were only 10 teams in the league in 1926, and three, including the Rangers, were expansion franchises.
“They got good quick and stayed good,” hockey historian Eric Zweig said of the Rangers. “They’re the only one that really is like the Golden Knights, but the circumstances are so different.”
The NFL established more expansion-friendly rules when it invited the Carolina Panthers and Jacksonville Jaguars to begin play in 1995. Both teams made their conference championship games in their second year, putting the NFL close to having an all-expansion Super Bowl.
Though such a championship game wouldn’t have necessarily been an ideal scenario for the NFL, the league also didn’t want new teams going 2-14 every season.
“You’re not just trying to build a successful on-the-ice or on-the-field or on-the-court team,” Pro Football Hall of Fame archivist Jon Kendle said. “You’re trying to build a market. So the worst thing you can have is, ‘We’re going to announce this new market, and we’re going to give you a really terrible team to root for.’”
Both teams had quality front offices and coaching staffs. Hall of Fame executive Bill Polian was the Panthers’ general manager, and Tom Coughlin — who later coached the New York Giants to two Super Bowl titles — was the Jaguars’coach and de facto GM.
Carolina’s early success, however, was short-lived; the Panthers didn’t post another winning record for seven years, when they reached the Super Bowl.
But the Jaguars built on their surprising second season by also making the playoffs each of the next three years. That included going 14-2 in 1999 and appearing in the AFC championship game.
So while most Knights fans might not prefer to identify with Florida’s third-most popular NFL team, the Jaguars are the closest comparison from that league.
When the Arizona Diamondbacks began their first Major League Baseball season in 1998, management had no intention of trying to win immediately. The philosophy from owner Jerry Colangelo on down was to build slowly with the idea of establishing a more firm base for long-term success.
Management saw how fans flocked to see the expansion Colorado Rockies at Mile High Stadium and then at Coors Field because just having a baseball team made up for the lack of victories. The Diamondbacks delivered the expected high number of losses in their inaugural season in 1998, going 65-97, but the patience executives expected from the fan base didn’t follow.
“Maybe it’s because we had spring training in Arizona for so long that people were used to seeing major league players, but our season ticket sales fell off precipitously after that first year,” said Joe Garagiola Jr., then the Diamondbacks’ general manager and now a senior adviser. “The point came where Jerry said, ‘Look, it’s clear that we are not going to have this multiyear honeymoon period that the Rockies have enjoyed up in Colorado.’”
So management created a new plan, which meant orchestrating trades and being aggressive in free agency, most notably signing ace and future Hall of Fame pitcher Randy Johnson.
The Diamondbacks won 100 games in 1999 and the World Series in 2001.
“The team we put on the field those years turned out to be a product of Plan B,” Garagiola said. “But as it worked out, that was OK.”
The Milwaukee Bucks also found quick success after going 27-55 in their first season in 1968-69. They won a coin flip with the Phoenix Suns for the top pick in that year’s draft, positioning them to take UCLA’s Lew Alcindor, who later changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Milwaukee made the playoffs immediately and was crowned NBA champion in 1971. The Bucks also made the playoffs the following three seasons, including the NBA Finals in 1974.
Another NBA expansion team that made a quick impact was the Chicago Bulls, who joined the league in 1966 and made the playoffs their first two seasons and eight of their first nine years.
Knights in good company
The Golden Knights have made the playoffs in each of their first three seasons, an unusually successful start in the NHL and the other major professional sports.
But other NHL teams have had similar three-year stretches, many that exceeded what the Knights have accomplished. Of the other 30 NHL teams, 21 have put together comparable spans at least once.
The best such periods include the Edmonton Oilers winning five Stanley Cups over a seven-year stretch from 1983 to 1990; the Montreal Canadiens winning championships from 1955 to 1960 and 1975 to 1979; the New York Islanders winning titles from 1979 to 1983; and the Toronto Maple Leafs taking it all from 1946 to 1949 and 1961 to 1964.
Mark Anderson, Review-Journal