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Matt Calkins: When the NHL comes to Seattle, don’t expect Vegas Golden Knights-level success immediately

UPDATED: Wed., Dec. 5, 2018

Vegas Golden Knights Shea Theodore and Jonathan Marchessault, center, celebrate after Nate Schmidt (88) scored against the Washington Capitals during the third period of an NHL hockey game Tuesday in Las Vegas. (John Locher / AP)
Vegas Golden Knights Shea Theodore and Jonathan Marchessault, center, celebrate after Nate Schmidt (88) scored against the Washington Capitals during the third period of an NHL hockey game Tuesday in Las Vegas. (John Locher / AP)
By Matt Calkins Seattle Times

SEATTLE – If there was a better sports story this year than the Vegas Golden Knights, nobody told me about it. A first-year expansion team wins 51 games before soaring to the Stanley Cup Finals? Unheard of.

They helped rally a city still reeling from the worst mass shooting in U.S. history. They captivated a country as an island of misfits morphed into a tropical storm.

It was shocking. It was uplifting. It was endlessly exciting.

And it was almost certainly a one-off.

This isn’t a column ghostwritten by Debbie Downer. It is a cry for patience in what could be a trying few years when the NHL comes to Seattle.

The expansion-draft rules will be the same as they were for Vegas, meaning Seattle’s team could still be competitive. But to expect anything resembling what the Golden Knights achieved is just plain greedy.

As far as the draft rules go, the other 30 NHL teams (Vegas will be exempt) have two options for whom they want to protect. They can shield seven forwards, three defensemen and one goaltender, or they can shield eight skaters (forwards and defensemen) and one goaltender.

But Seattle can poach anybody the other teams don’t designate for protection, which might make the director of scouting the most important person on the payroll.

It may not seem feasible to build something competitive with what are third- and fourth-stringers. Imagine putting together a quality basketball team with nothing but benchwarmers – or a quality baseball team with nothing but Mariners.

It’s almost impossible. But the Knights figured it out.

They were able to get three-time Stanley Cup winning goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2003 draft. The Penguins had a younger, cheaper goaltender in Matt Murray, so they gave up a two-time All-Star (three after his season with Vegas) and looked to the future.

They were able to get third-liner William Karlsson, who scored six goals with the Columbus Blue Jackets two seasons ago but 43 with the Golden Knights – good for the third most in the league. They were able to get Erik Haula, a fourth-line center who scored 15 goals with Minnesota two seasons ago, but 29 with Vegas.

Part of this shows you just how competitive the NHL is, where it’s not unusual for eight seeds to knock out top seeds in the first round (the 2012 Kings won the Stanley Cup as an eight seed). But two other factors were in play when it came to the Golden Knights’ success: 1) A-plus talent evaluation. 2) Luck.

Even the most gifted general managers have a slew of whiffs on their résumés. Just look at the number of top overall picks in baseball who never made the big leagues.

Hockey might not be quite as random, but for the Knights to work out as well as they did? It’s like a well-researched gambler hitting on a 10-game parlay.

This doesn’t mean that Seattle can’t be good in its initial year. The expansion-draft rules were put in place so that new teams had the potential to compete right away.

Nothing quashes a city-wide buzz quite like 60 losses and a last-place standing.

But “competitive” could mean posting the 20th-best record in the league and missing the playoffs with a week to go in the season. It could mean sneaking into the playoffs by year three, advancing to the second-round by year five and third round by year seven.

That’s still compelling hockey. That should still satisfy the tens of thousands of Puget Sound residents who signed up for hypothetical tickets the first day they were made available.

But it wouldn’t be anything resembling the Golden Knights’ first-year explosion. And that’s OK.

Who knows? Maybe Tod Leiweke – the CEO of the Seattle NHL franchise – will hire a brilliant GM who blows the league away. Maybe he’ll help bring the Stanley Cup back to Seattle almost instantaneously.

The more likely scenario, though, is that this thing will take time. The good news? That will make success that much sweeter.

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