here come the knights

words: paul thompson

photography: geoffrey knott


On Wednesday night, two franchises won their first-ever playoff games. One was the Winnipeg Jets. Not the original Jets, mind you—that franchise is languishing, financially and on the ice, in Phoenix as the Arizona Coyotes—but the replacement Jets, the club that came into the league in 1999 as the Atlanta Thrashers. The Thrashers suffered through years of futility and were sadly defined by the 2003 car accident that left one of their players dead and the driver (also the team’s star) pleading guilty to vehicular homicide. They moved to Winnipeg and changed their name in 2011.


The other team was the Vegas Golden Knights. Despite being an expansion team who very few experts predicted would finish anywhere other than last in the league, the Knights won the Pacific Division and have home ice advantage against the Los Angeles Kings in the first round––a series they now lead 1-0. No expansion team has won a playoff round since 1967-68, when the Minnesota North Stars went to the second round and the St. Louis Blues went all the way to the Stanley Cup Final. The catch, though, is that in 1967 the NHL expanded from six to 12 teams and for some unknowable reason put all six newcomers in the same division, ensuring one of them would make it to the Final. What Vegas has done in its first regular season (running away from division rivals with Cup-winning cores, challenging for the league’s best home record and overall points lead) is not only unprecedented in hockey, but in all of modern sports.


It’s true that Vegas and its $500 million league entry fee was given more favorable expansion draft rules than previous teams. But after the draft took place, few reporters or fans imagined the team even competing for a wildcard spot. And while there are certainly intangible motivators at play for an expansion team––the burning rage at being left exposed in a draft, the desire to prove your old coaches and GMs wrong––those have been a historical constant and, well, look at the first- (or second- or third-) season records of the Thrashers, or Tampa Bay Lightning, or Ottawa Senators.


Maybe the fundamental difference is that the Knights came in under radically different circumstances—and at a time of general upheaval in the league. This is the first time teams have been asked to prepare a protected list in the salary cap era, and so maneuvering their exposure—and making side deals with the expansion club—to offload hefty contracts had never before been such a variable. Perhaps even more importantly, the ways in which NHL teams how they evaluate players and project future performance are in a state of flux. New statistical models and sometimes violent corrections (and occasionally over-corrections) from long-held dogmas have made the league younger, more unorthodox, and more impatient. And so never before has a new team been stocked by so many players who, rather than being the known quantities of expansion drafts past, were question marks that were allowed to slip through the organizational cracks. 



The NHL Entry Draft is a strange event. It doesn’t take place in a hotel ballroom or at a steep-seated theatre or via semi-secret teleconference. Whichever team is hosting melts down the ice in its arena and sets up long, flimsy banquet tables on the cold concrete underneath. There’s one table for every team with exactly twenty chairs around each. (The league’s event staff employs extra security the night before the draft to make sure no bad actors sneak in and steal a chair from the Florida table and add it to Montreal’s to accommodate an extra scout or a stray assistant coach.)


In the past handful of years, talent evaluation of professional hockey players has taken on the sort of manic, post-post-Moneyball analytic bent that’s been so seismically important to other sports. Just as in baseball and basketball, adoption of those new strategies has been bumpy and not exactly universal. Some of that comes from the natural ideological tension between old and new; some comes from the fact that, compared to basketball, hockey takes place at a faster pace and on a larger playing surface, and has far fewer events that are strictly measurable. But the revolution is happening, uncomfortably and unevenly.


But in hockey, applying any sort of hard statistical analysis is even more complicated. Amateur players are scattered across Canadian major junior, U.S. high schools, the NCAA, the European leagues, and so on. (Remember, in Moneyballthe Oakland A’s limited their scope to college prospects, whose competition was more uniform and—therefore—whose stats were more meaningful.) But many NHL front offices are scrambling to project which 17- and 18-year-olds will best fit in to a rapidly changing pro game. Well, 17- and 18-year-olds at … most positions.


In the last 14 years, only one goalie has gone in the top five (Carey Price to Montreal at #5 in 2005); in the eight drafts so far this decade, only six goalies have gone in the first round. The drop off is the subject of a whole spool of debates, but most of the threads can be traced back to an increasingly analytics-minded NHL and its frustration with the unpredictability of goalie prospects, and to the evident belief that you might as well see which 6’4” guy is kicking around the American League and promote him for cheap until you strike oil.


In an era with little premier goalie talent entering the league, save percentages have nevertheless ballooned, possibly due to ever-more-sophisticated defensive systems, possibly due to simple height and leg measurements, possibly alchemy. When you watch NHL hockey, there are obvious, chasmal gaps between the best handful of goalies and the rest of the pack, in terms of athleticism, rebound control, positioning, and so on. But when reduced to hard, cold statistics, the gaps between most goalies in the league are razor-thin. It’s the sport’s most important position, but the men who play it have, to many GMs and columnists, become somewhat interchangeable.


That’s not how it was in 2003. The draft that year was in Nashville, the Predators being one of the four teams (Atlanta, Columbus, Minnesota) that brought the league from 26 to 30 member clubs between 1998 and 2000. I was there in Nashville, and the rabid crowd—after a sedate and sparsely-attended ‘02 draft in hockey mecca Toronto—predicted, in many ways, the ‘Smashville’ fans of last year’s playoffs, who lobbed catfish onto the ice like carefully-filleted IEDs.


The Pittsburgh Penguins had the third pick, but that still wasn’t high enough for a flagging franchise on uncertain financial footing and without any obvious bright spots in the pipeline. So they packaged #3 with #55 and Mikael Samuelsson to acquire the first-overall pick from Florida. Four nervous-looking men in suits marched up to the makeshift stage and took an 18 year-old goalie named Marc-Andre Fleury, who had shown tremendous promise with the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles in the QMJHL.


Fleury was in the NHL that fall. It’s difficult to say exactly how good he was those for the first five years after he was of his career. The Penguins were back in the playoffs by 2007, and in 2008 were in the Stanley Cup Final. But assessing Fleury was—as with most goalies—tricky. Statistics are highly variable from era to era, and style can be a strange thing to parse. Aside from blinding, paradigm-shattering players like Dominik Hasek, it’s difficult to measure creativity in goaltending, and to tease out whether the variations on a standard are effective or detrimental. Fleury is a well above-average skater and is remarkably sound in a conventional, positioning sense. From the time the opposing team enters the zone and until the first shot is saved, he’s a clear descendent of Patrick Roy’s modern butterfly style, an aggressive tactic for covering the lower part of the net. But unlike Roy—or the more upright Martin Brodeur, or the wonkier Roberto Luongo—Fleury is exceptionally fast while he’s on the ice, dizzyingly mobile and reactive (and flexible) from his knees.


The 2007-08 season was the first time Fleury finished in the top ten for save percentage, something he wouldn’t achieve again until 2015-16. And yet, on any given night during that near-decade, Fleury could be one of the best goalies in the world, stoning forwards from improbable positions. For much of the 2008 Stanley Cup Final, Fleury was spectacular, especially in Game 5, where he single-handedly staved off elimination by making 55 saves in a triple-overtime win. But in Game 6, a humiliating own-goal went on to be the Cup winner for the Red Wings.


The 2009 Cup Final was a rematch; this time, the Penguins won in Game 7, with Fleury making multiple saves in a mad scramble as time expired. He was, obviously, one of the key components in the Cup win.


But the next few years were a sort of purgatory for Fleury. He remained on the periphery of his position’s elite, occasionally keeping the team afloat when injuries sidelined Sidney Crosby and/or Evgeni Malkin, occasionally looking burnt out and overpaid. He lost his starting job during the 2013 playoffs, but led the league in shutouts in 2014-15. Halfway through 2015-16, the sputtering Penguins fired their coach and began a full-steam turnaround. Everything was in its right place until Fleury, who was playing as well as he had in years, suffered a season-ending concussion. When Fleury’s post-concussion symptoms had finally subsided enough for him to play, he started Game 5 of the conference final against Tampa Bay, losing in overtime. But new coach Mike Sullivan pivoted back to rookie goaltender Matt Murray, riding him to a win over the Lightning and a Stanley Cup Final win over San Jose.


The following season, there was some thought that the Penguins would try to move Fleury before the deadline, but inertia and a no-move clause kept him in Pittsburgh. After splitting time with Murray during the regular season, he was supposed to begin the playoffs on the bench—but was called upon to start Game 1 of the first round after Murray was injured in warmups. With Fleury in net, the Penguins won the first two rounds. But when he blew up in the conference final against Ottawa, he was replaced by a recovered Murray, who led the Penguins to their second consecutive Cup. Murray had a shutout in the decisive sixth game—in the same arena where Fleury had been drafted first overall, 14 Junes prior. Fleury’s career hung in the balance. Once a reliable, occasionally brilliant, starting goalie; now, expendable.


That summer, the league would usher in the Las Vegas Golden Knights via an expansion draft to stock their roster. The Golden Knights were expected to take Fleury in the Expansion Draft. That’s exactly what they did. The Penguins even sent Vegas their second-round pick in 2020 to ensure that they would take him off their hands.



When the Knights held their home opener last fall, Las Vegas was still reeling from the massacre that had taken place nine days prior. Before the puck was dropped, Knights defenseman Deryk Engelland, a Vegas resident for over a decade, gave a moving speech to the crowd. The Knights won.


From that game on, the team was remarkably good, and not just when graded on the expansion curve. The Knights were virtually unbeatable at home, which made for plenty of fun speculation about a ‘Vegas flu’ that made the walk from the Monte Carlo doubly treacherous. The combination of success in the standings and community outreach assuaged most fears among those in hockey who feared the team would become a sideshow act whose building would be dominated by visiting fans and disinterested tourists who would leave early to go back to the Monte Carlo.


Fleury instantly became the face of the franchise, but he was hardly alone in terms of on-ice success, or in terms of the roads they took to get to Nevada. For example: Jonathan Marchessault, an undersized center, moved to left wing and finished second on the team with 75 points. In June, at the Expansion Draft, Marchessault was unexpectedly left off the Florida Panthers’ protected list; to ensure the Knights drafted him and not another of their exposed players, the Panthers sent another player, Reilly Smith, to guarantee that the Knights would draft Marchessault and not somebody else who had been left exposed.


No franchise is more emblematic than the Florida Panthers of the tension between old and new dogmas. The reins there have been yanked back and forth between old-school ex-players and a group of executives derisively called the “computer boys” in the press. (Dale Tallon, a former defenseman in the league, was hired to serve as GM, “promoted” to another front office when he was deemed ineffective, and has since returned to the GM’s chair.) While the outcome of the power struggles there will likely decide what the Panthers look like for the next several years, it’s also evident that, in addition, certain key talent evaluations were botched. In another cruel twist, the Panthers gave the Knights their coach: Gerard Gallant, who was fired and literally left at the side of the road by Florida, has the Knights playing with exceptional tempo and a flexible structure and is a shoo-in for the NHL’s top coaching honors.


Smith, the player dealt as insurance, slotted in at the right wing on Vegas’s top line–opposite his old teammate Marchessault–and racked up 60 points himself. But it was their center, William Karlsson, who was the team’s true breakout star, notching 43 goals, good for third in the NHL. Karlsson was claimed from the Columbus Blue Jackets (they threw in a first-round pick to ensure Vegas took him). In contrast to Florida, Columbus is a stable, consistently competitive organization. Their GM, Jarmo Kekalainen, is a former player who distinguished himself as a scout for Ottawa and St. Louis during the aughts. When it came to the Blue Jackets’ misevaluation of Karlsson, it may have been a failure of usage and imagination: though he was a highly-touted second-round pick, Karlsson never cracked 15 minutes of ice time, and never scored more than 25 points in Columbus. This year, he had 78.


There are more examples of this—Malcolm Subban, who helped keep the Knights afloat when Fleury was out with a concussion early in the season, was another victim of the impatience teams have with goalie prospects—but suffice to say that Vegas won the Expansion Draft by exploiting unseen inefficiencies in a shifting marketplace. Since the last Expansion Draft, in 2000, the NHL has adopted a hard salary cap and seen its number of no-trade clauses skyrocket, both concerns factoring heavily in how teams approached their protected lists for the Vegas draft, and perhaps clouding what should have been clear-headed evaluations of players on strictly on-ice merits. The league is expected to announce expansion into Seattle at some point this summer, with the ownership group in the Northwest being assured the same Expansion Draft rules. The Knights, of course, will be exempt.


Before Wednesday's game against the Kings, the Knights turned T-Mobile arena into a bizarre spectacle of choreography and painfully telegraphed stakes. A man dressed as a knight skated to center ice and vanquished a king; an extra from TRON with a glowing visor beat a transparent war drum; the PA system was turned over to a faux-Game of Thrones expository poem. It was like if the Olympic opening ceremonies took place inside a theme restaurant inside a mall. Sixty minutes of play later, the Knights really did vanquish the Kings, beating L.A. 1-0. Both goalies were excellent, though they couldn’t have played more differently.


In net for L.A. was Jonathan Quick, an American who’s just over 12 months younger than Fleury, but didn’t appear in the league until four seasons later. While their career numbers are comparable, Quick’s reputation is far different than Fleury’s, at least among certain segments of the hockey world. There are debates as to whether Quick is a truly elite regular season goalie (he’s prone to lapses of focus and form), but no doubts about his identity as a tested, winning playoff goalie. When the Kings won their first Cup, in 2012 as the eighth seed in the West, Quick practically dragged them through game after game, winning the Conn Smythe Trophy as the top player in all four rounds of the playoffs.


Quick is spectacular, where “spectacular” is not so much a measure of quality but a literal descriptor. He darts wildly across the goalmouth, often far beyond the posts; he scrambles; he dives and flops and launches into the splits. This isn’t the graceful unorthodoxy of Dominik Hasek (which is inimitable) or the technical innovation of Felix Potvin (which gets studied and redeployed by imitators). Quick’s closest analogue from the generation before him might be the wildly unpredictable Curtis Joseph, but Joseph’s style was largely a compensation for his inferior skating ability. Quick is extremely mobile, but unable or unwilling to channel his physical abilities into a discernible structure.


And it works for him. He was tremendous in the game, keeping L.A. within inches with lunging saves and legs extended awkwardly toward the slot. But Fleury was just as good. He stopped all 30 shots he faced, at one point breaking up a Kings rush by taking the puck off his chest, then juggling it twice in the air with his extended stick so he could catch and freeze it.


After the game, Fleury was named the first star, and was brought back out onto the ice for an interview that was piped through the arena’s sound system and broadcast on NBCSN. The reporter prompted Fleury to talk about the Knights’ fourth line, and about the expectations he had for the franchise’s first playoff game. Then he asked him: “How come some nights you guys see the puck better than others?” Fleury sort of laughed, smiled, and said, in his second language: “I don’t know, it’s tough to say––I wish I could figure it out, you know?”