With the National Hockey League’s playoffs entering the semi-final round this week, the Vegas Golden Knights are making their third appearance in the Conference Finals in only their fourth year of existence, already with a Stanley Cup Final appearance in 2018 under their belt.
Their immediate success is unprecedented among recent expansion franchises not only in professional hockey but across all of the major North American sports leagues, with many struggling to gain a foothold against their more established competition and toiling for years in the depths of the standings before achieving any semblance of success.
By following three principles emphasized by their distant expansion cousins in the Golden Knights ahead of their inaugural season, the Seattle Kraken can emerge as Stanley Cup contenders earlier than anticipated.
- Identify and take fliers on undervalued players from around the league
If we took a trip back to the summer of 2017, we would have seen every hockey media pundit of consequence writing off the Golden Knights as nothing more than cannon fodder ahead of their first season, a ragtag group of misfits who were a collection of scraps thrown away by thirty other franchises.
The Golden Knights were propelled offensively by outstanding breakout seasons from William Karlsson (went from a 4th liner in Columbus to 43 goals with Vegas) and Jonathan Marchessault (75 points after a previous career-high of 51) and an unheralded but talented defensive core of Colin Miller, Shea Theodore, and Nate Schmidt, who ensured Vegas could catch their opponents off guard.
Elsewhere, players like goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, Reilly Smith, David Perron, and James Neal were seen as past their best-before dates and cast aside by teams looking to move on, relying more on their youth and prospects. Instead, they relished being given increased playing time and a second chance to rejuvenate their careers.
Seattle will be governed by the same expansion draft rules as Vegas and will have an opportunity to put players who may otherwise be buried on their team’s depth chart into a low-pressure situation where they demonstrate all they have to offer. If everything breaks right, the Kraken may hit on a few lottery tickets of their own.
2. Commit to a cohesive team identity
With a clean slate free from occasionally restricting traditions and historical expectations, the Golden Knights coaching staff and management were able to imprint their own visions of how hockey should be played on their malleable group of castaways.
While the team was low on game-breaking superstars, what they boasted was a lineup of skaters eager to prove their doubters wrong and to fully commit to an organizational ethos of being plucky underdogs.
This identity made the idea of being difficult to break down, and one that never gave an inch an easy sell, and the nightly displays of aggressive forechecking, relentless hitting, and methodical dismantling of opponents with skill suggested that Vegas was not a group to be taken lightly, even if they did not appear particularly imposing on paper.
The Kraken will likely take the same approach in building their lineup, and even if they do not scale the initial heights that Vegas was able to reach, their fans will have no qualms cheering for a team that grinds for success every night.
3. Don’t be afraid to take big swings through trades and free agency
Although the Golden Knights could have been satisfied with making the Stanley Cup Finals in their first season (the Leafs would even take a second-round exit at this point), they wished to be anything but complacent and immediately made trades and signings to increase their chances of raising the Cup.
After their initial Cup run, the team mortgaged their future by making trades with Montreal, Ottawa, and Winnipeg to add Max Pacioretty, Mark Stone, and Paul Statsny in the hopes of inserting more star power into their lineup.
Several more playoff failures drove them even further in their quest for success as they were able to pry the St. Louis Blues’ franchise cornerstone and captain from Missouri and to sign a monstrous deal that will take him into his late-30s.
For the Kraken, one such name hovering around the trade block these days is defensemen Dougie Hamilton, a giant right-handed rearguard who galavants all over the ice and can is as adept at driving offense as he is at corralling opposing forwards. If the franchise is looking for a big name to draw in fans, they could do much worse than Hamilton.
Wherever the Kraken management intends to steer the franchise ahead of puck drop in the fall, it will undoubtedly be an interesting season with frequent comparisons to the Golden Knights sure to follow. Still, if the cards fall right, they could be celebrating a jackpot of their own.