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Dave Poulin: How the Golden Knights fulfilled a promise to bring a Stanley Cup to Vegas

In putting a bow on the Vegas Golden Knights and their Stanley Cup championship, the question I’m being asked most often is: What exactly did we just watch, and how did Vegas do it?

What we watched was a methodical dismantling of the Florida Panthers in Game 5, giving Vegas a 4-1 series win after setting the standard for expansion teams in every sport with their artful construction.

I had a special interest, after a unique inside look early in the process. One of my former Flyers teammates, good friend Murray Craven, was owner Bill Foley’s original hockey consultant and one of the principal architects of the organization. After looking closely at buying an existing franchise, Foley’s group swung to owning the first major pro sports team in Las Vegas.

It was at a dinner with a business partner in Vegas that we first heard Foley lay out his aggressive plan and claim that the team would win a Cup in six years — possibly the first time the owner had uttered those words in public. We smiled respectfully, knowing how hard a task winning a Stanley Cup would be. Foley would get the last laugh.

The real question is how the Knights managed to back up that brash statement so accurately and emphatically.

Drilling down for the answer, I will lean on the famous words of one of my favourite boyhood TV characters, Detective Joe Friday of “Dragnet” — “All we want are the facts, ma’am.”

Here are the Vegas facts.

The brain trust

They hired well from the beginning. George McPhee was put in the general manager’s chair, and the front office was built around him. McPhee had 25 years of NHL management experience and complemented his skills nicely by adding Kelly McCrimmon, a veteran junior hockey executive who had successfully handled every job imaginable in Brandon, Man. Two key pieces were added immediately: pro scouting director Vaughn Karpan (pro scouting director) and Scott Luce (director of amateur scouting). All four are still there.

The expansion draft

With that foundation set well ahead of the expansion draft, they went to work and crafted a roster that would unexpectedly catapult them to the Stanley Cup final in their first year of existence. They cajoled, manipulated and manoeuvered to get the players they wanted — the same way they would operate moving forward. There were no friends in the business, merely partners with whom they would deal, most often in their favour. Six original members of the first NHL expansion team since 2000 skated with the Cup aloft on Tuesday night in Vegas. After the commissioner presented it to captain Mark Stone (acquired in a 2019 trade with the Ottawa Senators), Reilly Smith was next in line before handing it to Conn Smythe Trophy winner Jonathan Marchessault. William Karlsson, Shea Theodore, Brayden McNabb and William Carrier proudly followed.

Tricks of the trade

The Knights have stretched the salary cap to the limit and beyond, all within the rules. Every NHL team has been dealt with — there are no favourite trading partners. The championship roster includes players acquired from 14 different NHL teams: nine in the east, five in the west. If a deal is out there to be made, Vegas works its way into the conversation.

Conversely, only one Knights draft pick skated for Vegas in the final: towering defender Nicolas Hague, a second-round selection in year one. Draft capital was often used to make trades. Before their first game in 2017 they dealt a second-round pick to Columbus for valuable depth player Keegan Kolesar. Star centre Jack Eichel came over in a massive deal with Buffalo in 2021, two years after Stone. This year, top-line skater Ivan Barbashev and veteran goaltender Jonathan Quick were added at the March deadline.

While others rested before Christmas in 2019, McPhee used knowledge of his former employers to quietly airlift Chandler Stevenson out of Washington for a fifth-rounder. Nicolas Roy arrived in a deal with the Carolina Hurricanes ahead of the 2019 draft, Quinton Howden in a swap with the New York Rangers in July 2021. Adin Hill was added as goalie depth from San Jose just before this past season for a fourth-round pick.

The free agents

The signing of star defender Alex Pietrangelo in 2020 showed Knights brass were also capable of selling their vision. In the college free-agent derby, Zach Whitecloud was recruited out of Bemidji State in 2018. On the waiver wire, Greg Amadio was plucked from Toronto in 2021.

Behind the bench

Knights management continued to believe in the roster after missing the playoffs in their fifth year, but did make a coaching change. Bruce Cassidy built from the solid base set by predecessors Gerard Gallant and Peter DeBoer. It proved to be the final touch.

Canadian flavour

While a Canadian team has not won the Cup since 1993, 16 of the 21 Vegas skaters in the final were Canadians, plus McPhee, Cassidy and McCrimmon. The maple leaf was well represented.

In hindsight it might seem simple, but it was truly a challenge. But it was always possible. Just ask Bill Foley.

Dave Poulin, a former NHL player and executive, is a TSN hockey analyst based in Toronto and a freelance contributing columnist for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @djpoulin20

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