From the moment the Vegas Golden Knights roster was put together, the team was given an optimistic chance at success.
The Golden Knights benefited from a modern-day expansion draft and crafted their lineup through shrewd deals. On draft day last June, Nashville Predators general manager David Poile said to reporters, “I think this is by far the best expansion team ever.”
It wasn’t as rosy an outlook for Jack Ferreira. As general manager of the expansion Mighty Ducks, he summed up the expectations in two words.
“To survive,” Ferreira said.
The Mighty Ducks won 33 games in that 1993-94 inaugural season, but it took them four years to make the playoffs. It’s a far duck call from what Vegas has achieved in its first season: Fifty-one wins, a division and conference title and three wins from the Stanley Cup.
“I’m blown away,” said Stu Grimson, an original Mighty Duck and an analyst for NHL Network. “The thing that’s amazed me is the ease at which they’ve done it. I’m astounded at what they’ve done in the playoffs. Not only are they beating teams, but they’re doing it in five [and six-game series]. They’re making it look easy.”
Some qualifiers are in order to differentiate how the Mighty Ducks and Golden Knights were assembled. Vegas chose its players in the first expansion draft in the salary cap era, which meant other NHL teams were forced to make difficult decisions in protecting players and ultimately had to expose more significant assets. Vegas was also the only team selecting players, as opposed to 1993, when the Mighty Ducks and Florida Panthers were both dipping into the pool of talent.
But what really aided Vegas was that general manager George McPhee and his staff spent the previous season scouting players. They then were able to make side deals with teams.
For example, the Ducks traded defenseman Shea Theodore, their first-round pick in 2013, to Vegas so that McPhee would pick Clayton Stoner and not Josh Manson or Sami Vatanen in the expansion draft. McPhee also struck a deal with the Minnesota Wild to get Erik Haula and Alex Tuch, forwards who have combined for 44 goals in the regular season and nine in the playoffs.
Ferreira was hired as general manager in late March of 1993 and did not have time to arrange trades or handshake deals for that June’s expansion draft. He equates it to Vegas getting the eighth-best player on every team, as opposed to the Mighty Ducks getting the 15th- to 17th- best player.
How would the Mighty Ducks have fared under today’s expansion scenario?
“I don’t know if you’d get to the Finals or the Stanley Cup, but we would have had a much better shot at the playoffs,” Ferreira said.
Ferreira credits the convergence of several factors for Vegas’ success under coach Gerard Gallant.
“They did a great job,” Ferreira said. “You can’t fault them in anything — selection of coach, selection of players, great city, great fans. That’s not a home run. That’s a grand slam. You can’t help but get excited about them.”
The Golden Knights and Mighty Ducks share a common bond as players brought together as castoffs with something to prove. Vegas adopted the moniker “Golden Misfits” as their identity. Mighty Ducks coach Ron Wilson did not allow his players to say the word “expansion” during that inaugural season and, if they did, they took flak from teammates.
“One of the galvanizing aspects to an NHL locker room is you’ll try to develop this us-against-the-world mentality and it brings you closer as a group,” Grimson said. “When you shift it to an expansion team, it ups the experience. When you seize it, when you embrace it, you can have fun with it. It can galvanize you. It can have a tangible result.”
Despite a cartoonish, Disney-inception that included appearances by Mickey Mouse, Aladdin and the Beast in a formal announcement of the team’s debut, the Mighty Ducks took pride in their novelty status. Ferreira ensured they wouldn’t get pushed around with fighters Grimson and Todd Ewen, and on some nights they were simply better.
“We played in Toronto on ‘Hockey Night In Canada,’ ” Ferreira said. “That night in the press room, they served roast duck. We ended up tying in that game. I had to laugh.”
Guy Hebert, the original Mighty Ducks goalie, identifies in some ways with the Golden Knights and cites the performance of their goalie, Marc-Andre Fleury, as a driving force. Hebert and the Ducks tied the Panthers with 33 wins, at that time a record for the most wins by a first-year team.
“We had 33 wins and we were not that far out [of a playoff spot],” said Hebert, a Ducks television analyst. “Now it doesn’t seem that great.”
Vegas is the first expansion team in 50 years from the four major sports to reach the championship series. The only other NHL teams to do so were the St. Louis Blues in 1967-68 and the Toronto Arenas in 1917-18, the NHL’s first season (the runner-up Vancouver Millionaires were already in existence, as part of the Pacific Coast Hockey Assn.).
“I think it’s pretty amazing what they’ve done,” Hebert said of the Golden Knights. “I just think it’s a group of guys, like us, who are getting an opportunity, whether you’re a second- or third-string goalie or whoever, to get a chance.