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The Vegas Golden Knights shouldn’t aim to win in their 1st NHL season

Winning right out of the gate is a tantalizing option, but it could stifle the Golden Knights’ ability to build toward the future.

2017 NHL Awards And Expansion Draft Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

When the Vegas Golden Knights take to the ice to play their first NHL game in two months, there will be a lot of questions surrounding the league’s latest expansion team. While we know what their jerseys will look like and what their roster is shaping up to be, the big question many have is how good the Golden Knights will be in their first NHL season.

Until we’ve seen the Golden Knights actually play a game of hockey, that will be hard to determine. Many have already put the nail in Vegas’ coffin before they’ve put skates on the ice, though there is precedent for expansion teams to nosedive hard in their first seasons. It is easy to pick on the Golden Knights as they are the NHL’s newest team, and their expansion draft didn’t go how many people thought as they passed over a few appetizing options on the table.

While we all debate roster spots and lineup positions, it’s worth asking whether the Golden Knights should even want to be a good hockey team this year. Arguably, the NHL and the hockey community should want Vegas to do well in 2017-18 to build a core fan base and generate noise in a non-traditional market. Yet, there is sense in playing the long game here, which is what general manager George McPhee may have been doing all along.

Is success worth it in the short term for the Golden Knights?

It wouldn’t have been easy for the Golden Knights to pick a proven, playoff-ready roster at the outset in the expansion draft. Given the talent there, Vegas was never going to build a Stanley Cup contending team with third- and fourth-line players and middle-of-the-road defensemen from the get-go.

Where Vegas could have found talent was flipping some of their deep defensive pool and draft picks to teams in need of those last few pieces as the offseason winds down. Instead, McPhee traded some of those defensive assets to teams in return for early to mid-round draft picks.

When all was said and done, Vegas has ended up with an astounding 27 draft picks across the next three years. Here’s how the data spread out, thanks to CapFriendly.

Vegas Golden Knights draft picks 2018-2020

Year Round 1 Round 2 Round 3 Round 4 Round 5 Round 6 Round 7
Year Round 1 Round 2 Round 3 Round 4 Round 5 Round 6 Round 7
2018 1 1 - 1* 2* 1 -
2019 1 3* 3* 1 2* 1 1
2020 1 3* 1 1 1 1 1
* Indicates trades made to acquire other team’s draft picks.

In total, Vegas has added nine additional draft picks between rounds two and five thanks to their offseason dealings. Those moves very much house the mindset of a future-thinking general manager, one that is willing to sacrifice success today for a payoff down the road.

That mindset feeds into the idea that the Golden Knights shouldn’t strive for success outright in their first NHL season, and instead should look to finish at the bottom of the league. A finish in the league’s basement nets the highest lottery odds, and after being stymied in a wacky draft lottery that gave them the sixth pick, a chance to jump into the first overall spot in a stronger draft shouldn’t be ignored.

Especially considering cornerstone defenseman Rasmus Dahlin is on the line as today’s current consensus No. 1 pick. Of course, Vegas would need the odds to fall in their favor this time, but fans would likely forgive a sub-par first season if Dahlin is leading their defensive corps for years to come.

On the flip side, success in their first season nets the Golden Knights hype that no expansion team has yet to have out of the gate. An over-.500 season would likely be considered successful given the track record previous expansion teams have put down, and an unlikely playoff berth would look real good for both the franchise and the NHL as a whole. It’d be quite the story, and could even hit well with the casual fans the NHL picks up during playoff time.

The hype might just be worth a push by the Golden Knights in their first season, considering many fans believe franchises in the desert are doomed to fail. Even so, wouldn’t it be more beneficial for the Golden Knights to build out a successful franchise from the ground up? Vegas did a real solid job in the 2017 draft with picking up Cody Glass, Nick Suzuki, and Nicolas Hague, among others, but the team badly needs a franchise player to build around.

The Toronto Maple Leafs and Edmonton Oilers are the most recent examples of nailing franchise-changing players with the No. 1 overall pick in the draft. Auston Matthews and Connor McDavid are in a class of their own, for sure, but to make the jump from good to great in this league, you need a franchise-defining player.

Taking their lumps in the regular season and reaping the benefits in the upcoming drafts is a successful model for rebuilding teams, and one the Golden Knights seem poised to follow given McPhee’s modus operandi so far. It would certainly prove the naysayers right for at least the first year of Vegas’ existence, but the Golden Knights seem to have a solid philosophy in sight.

It took expansion franchises like the Nashville Predators, Tampa Bay Lightning, and Anaheim Ducks a few seasons to find their feet before gaining success in the postseason. With a solid road map seemingly in place for the Vegas Golden Knights, the NHL’s newest team could very well be on the way to success sooner than we think.