Why the Bitterness Toward the Golden Knights?
It’s been a week since the Vegas Golden Knights won their first-ever Stanley Cup.
They’re the seventh team since 2000 to win their first Cup, joining the Tampa Bay Lightning (2004), Carolina Hurricanes (2006), Anaheim Ducks (2007), Los Angeles Kings (2012), Washington Capitals (2018) and St. Louis Blues (2019).
The Golden Knights also became the fastest expansion team to win the Cup by doing so in their sixth season, breaking the record of seven seasons set by the 1973-74 Philadelphia Flyers.
Their fans are deliriously happy over their franchise’s success, bouncing back from missing the playoffs last season to win hockey’s hold grail. It also comes five years after the club stunned the hockey world by reaching the Stanley Cup Final in their inaugural campaign.
Nevertheless, some fans of other teams took to social media to express their bitterness toward the Golden Knights following their Cup win.
Most spouted tired conspiracy theories claiming the Golden Knights benefited from an expansion draft supposedly rigged in their favor by league commissioner Gary Bettman.
Others claimed the Golden Knights cheated by keeping sidelined captain Mark Stone on long-term injury reserve until the playoffs when the salary cap no longer counted, enabling them to add Ivan Barbashev, Jonathan Quick and Teddy Blueger at the trade deadline.
All of this, of course, is sour grapes.
Some of it comes from so-called “traditionalists” who can’t stand to see Sun Belt franchises winning the Cup. Some of it emanates from supporters of teams in the midst of lengthy Stanley Cup droughts.
It’s true that the NHL changed the expansion draft rules for the Golden Knights. Those rules stayed in place for the Seattle Kraken’s draft in 2021.
The slim pickings in previous expansion drafts left the new teams struggling for years as league doormats before they could build into playoff contenders. It wasn’t a smart way to draw supporters in those new markets.
Building fan support and growing the game in non-traditional markets is the point of expansion. It boosts the league’s hockey-related revenue and improves its visibility in the ultra-competitive North American sports market.
Everyone knew that the rules for the 2017 expansion draft would force established teams to expose better players. Nevertheless, some of those clubs – the Ducks, Columbus Blue Jackets, Florida Panthers and Minnesota Wild – made questionable trades with Vegas to protect other players.
That’s how Shea Theodore, William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault, Reilly Smith and Alex Tuch wound up becoming invaluable players for Vegas in their early years. It’s how they got a franchise goalie during those years in Marc-Andre Fleury. They were among the players who helped the Golden Knights reach the 2018 Stanley Cup Final, forming the basis of a core that became a solid playoff contender for the following three seasons, including two more trips to the Western Conference Final.
When that draft was completed, however, no one at the time pointed to their roster and said, “This is a team that’s going to be a Stanley Cup Finalist in their first season.”
The Golden Knights were expected to be competitive in their NHL debut season but nobody predicted they would reach the playoffs, let alone march to the 2018 Stanley Cup Final. Postseason contention was projected to be three or four years away. Not even team owner Bill Foley, predicting his club would win the Cup by 2023, expected his team to have such impressive success in their first three campaigns.
Fortunately for the Golden Knights, they had an experienced, shrewd general manager during the expansion draft named George McPhee during the expansion draft. He’s now their president of hockey operations.
Of those original “Golden Misfits”, as they were self-dubbed, only six remain – Smith, Theodore, Karlsson, Brayden McNabb, William Carrier and playoff MVP Marchessault. The rest of their roster was built largely on trades by McPhee and his successor Kelly McCrimmon.
Drawing on existing talent, draft picks and their prospect pool, McPhee and McCrimmon acquired Mark Stone, Jack Eichel, Alec Martinez, Chandler Stephenson, Ivan Barbashev, and playoff hero Adin Hill.
Nobody gifted those players to the Golden Knights. They acquired them fair and square, just as they did with their original gang of misfits in the expansion draft. If anyone’s at fault, it’s the general managers of those rival clubs who got lured into bad trades.
As for the supposed “cheating” of having Stone on LTIR for the season, this goes back to Tampa Bay Lightning star Nikita Kucherov missing the entire COVID-shortened 2020-21 season recovering from offseason hip surgery only to return to action in the 2021 playoffs and help his club win the Stanley Cup.
This complaint goes back even further, to the 2014-15 season and Chicago Blackhawks winger Patrick Kane missing the final two months of the regular season with a broken collarbone, returning for the Blackhawks’ postseason march to the Cup.
In those cases, the Lightning and the Blackhawks garnered cap relief with their high-salaries stars on LTIR that was put toward loading up the roster for the playoffs. The Golden Knights drew on the precedent set by both clubs.
In each case, those teams had to prove to the league that those players could not be cleared medically to play until the postseason. It’s still a legal loophole in the collective bargaining agreement. General managers don’t like it unless, of course, it’s their teams that benefit from it. Don’t expect to see any change to that rule anytime soon.
If you’re a fan of a club that hasn’t won a Stanley Cup in years or decades and you’re upset over the Golden Knights winning hockey’s holy grail, your frustration is aimed in the wrong direction.
Instead of dreaming up wild conspiracy theories or baseless accusations of cheating, perhaps you should be demanding more from the folks who are running your team.
Maybe the fault lies with years of mismanagement and incompetence that has kept your team out of the playoffs or hamstrung their ability to become more than a marginal contender or prevented them from winning more than a playoff round or two.
Let the Golden Knights and their fans enjoy their moment. In today’s salary cap world, they’ll face the same difficulties maintaining a Stanley Cup contender as most of their predecessors.
At some point, the Golden Knights’ core players will age and management will have to replace them. Cap constraints will one day see them lose talent to free agency or cost-cutting trades. The ongoing pillaging of their shrinking prospect pool for short-term gains could prove costly over the long term.
By that stage, maybe your team will finally get their act together and end their long Stanley Cup drought.