LAS VEGAS — If the Vegas Golden Knights were to win the Stanley Cup, would the NHL commissioner still get booed?
That was the first question asked to Gary Bettman a couple of hours before Game 1 of the championship final on Monday. And it was a question he didn’t expect to receive in Year 1 of the expansion franchise. After all, it’s been 20 years since the Washington Capitals last reached the final and more than half a century since the Toronto Maple Leafs were here.
That’s worth a few cheers, isn’t it?
Well, it depends on your viewpoint. While the Golden Knights have been the story of the season, they wouldn’t be here without an expansion draft that the NHL tweaked to make the team competitive right out of the gates.
They drafted name players, such as Marc-Andre Fleury and James Neal. They put teams into compromising positions, essentially forcing them to make trades that netted Vegas talented youngsters or expensive depth players.
“We needed to make the team more competitive,” said Bettman. “This was the first expansion in the salary cap era as we afford all of our clubs an opportunity to be competitive.”
|NHL commissioner Gary Bettman speaks to the media prior to Game 1 of Stanley Cup final in Las Vegas on May 28. Harry How / Getty Images|
Of course, no one — and I mean not one single person — could have predicted that they would finish with 109 points and win their division, much less reach the final, which they lead 1-0 after beating the Capitals 6-4 on Monday night. But on the flipside, no one thought Vegas would be as bad as the 1992-93 Ottawa Senators. As Bettman said, the goal was to make them relevant. The rest was simply puck luck and magic.
There is no explanation for why William Karlsson went from scoring six goals in Columbus to 43 in Vegas or why Nate Schmidt went from being a seventh defenceman in Washington to someone who was leading the playoffs in ice time.
“I wouldn’t say that anyone expected the expansion draft rules we were creating would create a Stanley Cup finalist,” said deputy commissioner Bill Daly. “I continue to think it’s a good thing. It’s a good thing for the league. It’s certainly created a story that people want to follow and people are intrigued by. And that’s good for the National Hockey League … I think it’s been a tremendous story and a positive.”
As Bettman and Daly spoke, rapper Lil’ Jon was outside T-Mobile Arena pumping up a crowd of hockey fans that was in the thousands. Indeed, this was a positive. Not just for Vegas but for the hockey world.
Bettman gets a lot of criticism for expanding the league to Arizona and Carolina and places where hockey has not taken hold. But Vegas is an example of how on-ice success is tied to off-ice success. Fans might have been on board with this team even before it had a name or a player on the roster. But that’s not sustainable. They want to cheer on a winner. That’s why the expansion draft rules were so important.
“The fact that they’ve overperformed, for a lack of a better term, is gravy to what is a great story,” said Daly. “The fact that they are in the Stanley Cup finals is hard even to imagine at the start of the year. My own view is it could only be a positive for this market and the league long-term. But I think the fundamentals were in place long before the team took the ice.
“It’s an amazing story in every category. In terms of league revenue, it’s a positive story. It’s been off the charts.”
If this team had won 10 games, as the Senators did in their first season 25 years ago, the buzz would have fizzled by Christmas. Instead, the momentum only snowballed as the season wore on and the team began shattering records and making history.
It wasn’t about rigging the rules to create a Stanley Cup winner. It was about creating a competitive team that was worth watching.
Seattle, which is expected to get a team in the next two years, will be afforded the same advantage — as will Houston, Quebec City or wherever else the NHL decides to expand in the future.
“It wouldn’t make any sense to not have the expansion team the same way,” said Bettman, adding that he has received “no pushback whatsoever” from the league’s other owners.
Added Daly: “Part of our objective going in was to create rules that would allow Las Vegas to leverage their draft positions in ways that they did. And they did quite effectively. It will be interesting to see if the next expansion team that comes down the road if the existing 31 teams approach in the same way.”
In other words, will opposing teams learn from their mistakes at the next expansion draft? Maybe. Or maybe Seattle should start planning for a parade in 2021.
If so, there’s no question Bettman will be the grand marshal.
Source: Michael Traikos | National Post