LAS VEGAS — The first hockey operations meeting was held in the conference room of a title insurance company, because construction of their permanent office space had not yet broken ground. The first staff photo was taken with everyone wearing golf shirts from team owner Bill Foley’s cattle ranch, because they had chosen neither a logo nor name. Twenty-one months ago, the Vegas Golden Knights were little but a mishmash of scouts and analysts, directors and advisors, assembled over Labor Day weekend to begin the biggest challenge of their careers. As one new employee would say, “Everyone was coming from somewhere else. We were like the U.N.”
At the head of the table stood general manager George McPhee, backlit by the glow of a PowerPoint presentation. Slide after slide, McPhee detailed his vision for how the nascent expansion NHL franchise would function—culture, strategies, responsibilities, expectations … He also sprinkled a collection of motivational quotes, including one attributed to Bobby Orr: “My performance is my responsibility, every day. My duty is to lead through my performance and not be influenced by anyone or anything that might get in the way of that.”
In the end, the Golden Knights followed these words to a tee during their inaugural season. Against all odds and logic they ran away with the Pacific Division, captured the Western Conference and finished three victories shy of the Stanley Cup, damned what the rest of the hockey world may believe. The dream run finally ended Thursday night when destiny instead sided with Washington, a city that had waited 44 years for what Vegas managed in less than 12 months. But as the players took one last twirl at T-Mobile Arena after the 4-3 loss in Game 5, saluting the crowd with their sticks and receiving a thunderous applause of thanks, it was hard to reflect with anything but awe. Where else but Vegas could spare change turn into such treasure?
Take Jonathan Marchessault. The diminutive winger was already a 30-goal scorer when Vegas plucked him from Florida in the expansion draft, but even McPhee admits that the pick still carried certain “risk.” It wasn’t that he lacked the self-confidence to sustain such success; years before Marchessault would start driving to playoff games in a Stanley Cup-silver Lamborghini, former AHL coach Rob Zettler recalls once wandering past the locker room showers and spotting him giving a bath to his poodle in the nude. “It’s Marchie,” says Zettler, now a San Jose assistant who watched as Marchessault dropped nine points on the Sharks in six games during the second round. “You’re not rolling your eyes, you’re laughing.”
But the Golden Knights also supported Marchessault: with a fixed home on their top line, with 17:30 of average ice time, with a six-year, $30 million extension midway through what became a career 75-point season. “What he wanted most, in my mind, was respect,” McPhee says. “A team that could put a long-term deal on the table for him and respect that he was a good player, that would pay him like he should be paid. We have a lot of players like him.”
The Golden Misfits, they nicknamed themselves, though by the end there was no question that they belonged among the NHL’s best. Coach Gerard Gallant instilled a stress-free ethos that rolled four lines and allowed young skaters to work through mistakes. Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, the only no-brainer pick in the expansion draft according to McPhee, carried a .947 save percentage through three rounds until the Capitals started hammering pucks over his glove-side shoulder. Nate Schmidt, Erik Haula, Alex Tuch and William Karlsson each thrived in greater roles, to say nothing of a smitten Vegas fan base that has all but forgotten about that NFL team coming soon.
So what now? How will McPhee spend his casino vaults of spare cash—roughly $30 million in projected cap space, according to CapFriendly.com—when free agency opens this summer? Can the team’s intangible, indisputable magic carry over into next season (or at least more measurable metrics like Karlsson’s league-high 23.4% shooting rate)? Nothing will quite match what we have witnessed over the past 21 months, ever since the hockey operations staffers convened in the conference room and the seeds of an impossible story were planted. Then again the Golden Knights did not win the Stanley Cup. There is still room to grow in the desert.