How do new NHL teams gauge whether a season has been successful or not? For established teams on top of their game; nothing less than a piece of silverware will suffice. For teams going through a rebuild; it’s about exceeding last season’s points total, allowing fewer goals or whatever specific metric they’re working on. For teams circling the drain, it’s about winning the draft lottery and getting a good trade for Matt Duchene.
The Vegas Golden Knights, the NHL’s noobs, don’t have previous seasons to compare to, and despite a strong 5/1/0 start to the season, odds are, the Stanley Cup isn’t going to Las Vegas this season. Sorry Las Vegans.
So when all’s said and done, and the 2017/18 season has wrapped up and gone home (or Seattle in the Coyotes’ case), how do the the Golden Knights look back and reflect on whether or not they did a good job? Looking at points, league position etc isn’t enough, as those can always be flippantly explained or disregarded with the fact that “it’s their first season”.
The real question that the front office should ask is “how well did we do building a team?” And that is something that’s comparable to every expansion team that’s come before. That’s 20 teams since the Original Six era if you don’t include the four teams that joined from the WHA. We’ll swerve those as they were in fairness, already established teams.
Despite fluctuations in league size and numbers of games, there are some metrics that are constant, or at least easily adjustable. Win percentage is one such metric, of all the new teams to enter the league since 1967, the Washington Capitals had the worst debut season, and finished with a win percentage of just .100. Still the worst ever season recorded in the NHL for an expansion team.
By contrast, the Los Angeles Kings and Philadelphia Flyers had the best debut seasons; both finished the 1967/68 season on .418.
For the Golden Knights to beat the Kings’ and Flyers’ debut win percentage would be impressive but also unlikely. Only two teams have come close; the Florida Panthers and the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim tied on .392. If Vegas can finish with a win percentage above .350 then McPhee and friends have done well enough building a good team. 2016/17’s numbers ranged from the Colorado Avalanche’s .268; through to Washington’s .670. A far cry from their opening season.
Another number that applies to all teams, no matter the size of the league or its points system is Goal Difference. If your team is scoring more goals than its conceding then something is going right.
The benchmark for expansion teams was set pretty low; the highest goal difference recorded was zero. The Florida Panthers are the only team to not end their debut season in a deficit. The Panthers literally managed to break even.
The average goal difference for expansion teams is -74, which last season would have put the Golden Knights second to last behind the Avalanche who bottomed out (in many ways) on -122. Naturally the Caps topped the table with +81. Given the weak history of expansion teams, ending the season with a deficit of goals isn’t exactly shameful; 14 teams found themselves in that position last season and one team, the Ottawa Senators finished on -2 but still advanced to the playoffs.
Ending the season with a better goal difference than -74 would make the Golden Knights better than average, although considering that the team has Marc-Andre Fleury tending net; Vegas should be aiming much higher.
We’ve already looked at how long the Golden Knights’ streak can continue and normal NHL service will resume soon enough. It’s rare for a team to progress through the playoffs in its debut season, but it’s not unheard of. The St Louis Blues made the Stanley Cup final in 1968 (and 1969).
Whatever standard the team (and the rest of the league) uses to judge their opening season, it’s going to be a hell of a ride. To finish anywhere above last place would be exceeding expectations, but the Golden Knights have a point to prove. The “proud member of the league’s original 31” has come out firing on all cylinders and much like the city itself; is here to make a big, bold statement. While the best start in expansion history is promising, the Vegas faithful are hoping that in a few months, there’ll be some substance to back up the style we’re seeing now.