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How the Golden Knights got to the Stanley Cup Final in their first season ever, explained if you’re just catching up

Some of Vegas’ success is luck, but the Knights had a plan. It turned out to be a pretty good one.

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Vegas Golden Knights at Winnipeg Jets James Carey Lauder-USA TODAY Sports

The Vegas Golden Knights are in Stanley Cup Final in their first season. It starts Monday night against the Capitals.

The Knights the best first-year expansion team ever — not just in hockey, but in professional sports. What they’ve done might never happen again.

How did the Knights happen? Here’s a quick catching-up.

1. The NHL gave the Knights a favorable setup in last summer’s expansion draft, which they used to get almost all of their players.

The last time the league held an expansion draft was in 2000, when it had two new teams, the Wild and Blue Jackets, starting up.

The Knights entered the league in a way better situation, for three reasons:

  • They were the only expansion team. They didn’t have to compete with another for players.
  • The NHL installed a salary cap after the 2004-05 lockout, which meant Vegas had way more cap room than any other team. The Knights would use that space in all sorts of ways.
  • The draft rules were just friendlier to Vegas. Depending on which players they decided they wanted to keep, the other 30 teams were able to “protect” between nine and 11 players whom Vegas couldn’t touch. In 2000, teams could spare between 12 and 15 players from the Wild and Blue Jackets. Vegas would take exactly one player from every team.

The draft setup helped, but it doesn’t fully explain how the Knights got this good. Most people who looked at their roster right after it was assembled didn’t think they’d contend.

2. Vegas made a bunch of savvy moves around the expansion draft, capitalizing on other teams’ situations to get useful players.

Teams weren’t allowed to protect more than one goalie. The Penguins had just won two Stanley Cups with 23-year-old Matt Murray as their primary starter, but they had another skilled goalie (with three Cup rings) in the 32-year-old Marc-Andre Fleury. The Penguins exposed the older, pricier, still-talented Fleury to the draft, and Vegas took him.

The Panthers were about to be on the hook for a $5 million cap hit for center Reilly Smith, a good player, but one who’d declined from 50 points two seasons ago to 37 in 2016-17. They didn’t feel like paying Smith that money, so they traded him to Vegas. The Knights agreed as part of the deal to draft winger Jonathan Marchessault, who’d just put up 30 goals but was going into his last year on a cheap contract and had a spotty defensive reputation.

The Knights reached a similar deal with the Wild, who had a bunch of talented defensemen they wanted to protect from the draft. Minnesota traded forward prospect Alex Tuch to Vegas so that the Knights would take Erik Haula, a winger who hadn’t breached 34 points in any of his three NHL seasons.

Vegas took on some other big contracts to get good players. The Predators’ James Neal ($5 million cap hit) and Blues’ David Perron ($3.8 million) were both accomplished scorers, but they were aging and pricy. They were attractive to the Knights, with their tons of cap space.

Vegas also took on the $5.25 million-a-year contract of retired winger David Clarkson from the Blue Jackets, in exchange for a couple of high regular draft picks and, in the expansion draft, taking winger William Karlsson, who’d scored 15 goals over the prior two years.

3. And, yeah, the Knights have gotten a bit lucky. Their roster is full of players having career years that no one could’ve seen coming.

At 33, Fleury is having not just the best season of his career, but one of the great postseasons in the history of the sport, with a .947 save percentage through the conference final. He will have a Conn Smythe Trophy case even if the Knights don’t win the Cup.

Marchessault and Smith have been amazing, making it look like an epic blunder that the Panthers were so confident losing either of them, let alone both.

Karlsson, the guy the Blue Jackets sent away in the course of dumping Clarkson’s contract, came from nowhere to score 43 regular-season goals. Haula and Tuch from the Wild both had their best years ever. (Tuch’s a rookie, but a good one.)

Perron, a 29-year-old who’d bounced around the league in recent years, had a career-high 66 points. Deryk Engelland, a slow, 36-year-old defenseman, suddenly became good.

There are stories like these up and down the lineup and even on the bench. Vegas got quality backup goaltending from Malcolm Subban, a 2012 first-round pick of the Bruins (and P.K.’s little brother) who hadn’t been able to stick in the league.

4. Their coach and general manager pulled off a magic trick.

The coach, Gerard Gallant, and general manager, George McPhee, deserve a lot of credit. The Knights play well together. They’ve made some smart moves, both at the expansion draft and after it. But there’s no perfect explanation for the season they’ve had. Their year will go down as one of the greatest managerial feats ever.