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Golden Knights not satisfied with clinching playoff berth

First-year team has sights set on Pacific Division title, success in postseason

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

When owner Bill Foley and forward James Neal chatted about the Vegas Golden Knights one day during training camp, Foley was feeling optimistic about their inaugural season. At least he thought he was. His plan was to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs in three years and win the Cup in six.

"We should be competitive," Foley said. "We're not going to embarrass ourselves."

"What do you mean?" Neal asked.

"Well, it's an expansion team," Foley said.

"We're going to make the playoffs," Neal said.

Turns out, Neal was right. The Golden Knights were like his nickname: the Real Deal. They clinched a playoff berth with a 4-1 win against the Colorado Avalanche on Monday.

But the most impressive part? In the end, it wasn't a surprise. It was inevitable. Vegas blew away records for expansion teams and stopped being measured as one long ago. The Golden Knights didn't clinch as lovable underdogs in the last game of the regular season; they clinched as Pacific Division leaders with six games and almost two weeks to go. It was their 48th victory, extending their own record for first-year teams. Their 103 points also are a record for a team in its inaugural NHL season.

Video: #ThirstForTheCup: Vegas clinches first playoff berth

It seems a matter of time until they clinch the division. The question is whether they can win the Western Conference or the Presidents' Trophy, and how far they can go in the playoffs. This will go down as a wildly successful season even if they get swept in the Western Conference First Round, but they won't be satisfied with that.

"We're all trying to enjoy the journey, but it has changed," said general manager George McPhee, who, along with coach Gerard Gallant, refused to talk about the playoffs all season. "We now have higher expectations, and you have to have higher expectations based on the way the team has played. It forces you to think in a different way."

The Golden Knights were supposed to be good for an expansion team. Foley paid a $500 million expansion fee, and the NHL wanted to build a strong foundation for the first major professional sports franchise in Las Vegas. So, the League held an expansion draft with rules more favorable than in the past. Vegas also entered the League by itself and was the first expansion team since the salary cap was introduced in 2005.

In short, the Golden Knights didn't have to compete with another first-year team and had a deeper pool of talent from which to choose. They had a clean slate with the cap, not just the roster, and entered at a time of parity.

"Let's give the NHL credit for having a reasonably generous draft," said Detroit Red Wings senior vice president Jim Devellano, a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame who worked as a scout for the St. Louis Blues when they entered the League in 1967-68 and the New York Islanders when they did in 1972-73. "'They're paying a lot of money for a franchise. Let's give these guys a good start. Let's make them decent.'"

But they became far more than decent because they took advantage of the situation and everything clicked beyond their wildest imagination. Foley wanted an all-for-one, one-for-all, no-ego culture. McPhee wanted an up-tempo, modern style. For a year, McPhee, assistant GM Kelly McCrimmon and their staff scouted and ran mock drafts looking for players who fit their vision.

Video: COL@VGK: Golden Knights hand sticks out to fans

"I know in speaking with George and Kelly McCrimmon during the process, they knew our team inside and out," Minnesota Wild GM Chuck Fletcher said. "They knew our players, and they knew what they were trying to accomplish."

McPhee hired Gallant, a finalist for the Jack Adams Award as NHL coach of the year with the Florida Panthers in 2015-16.

Then he exploited the 2017 Expansion Draft and other teams' cap situations, making picks and trades to pile up assets -- from established all-stars like Neal and goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, to young players with upside, to draft picks for the future. He made moves for the long term, trading veterans Marcus Kruger, Alexei Emelin, Marc Methot, David Schlemko and Trevor van Riemsdyk for prospects and picks, but built a team in the short term. He had lots of players with something to prove with expiring contracts, meaning they would have motivation and he would have flexibility.

It was clear the Golden Knights had depth; it was unclear whether they had enough difference-makers. Who would be their No. 1 center and No. 1 defenseman? Gallant kept an open mind, allowing players to seize opportunities. He wanted the players to have fun but demanded they play hard and as a team. The Golden Knights didn't hesitate to send center Vadim Shipachyov to the minors, even though they had signed him to a two-year, $9 million contract. He returned to the Kontinental Hockey League.

The result: a team that rolled four lines and three defense pairs, that used its speed and depth to keep coming at opponents, that played together and hungry.

"[They're] outstanding in playing a current style with where the League is at and where it's going," San Jose Sharks GM Doug Wilson said. "They're not going away."

Video: COL@VGK: Fleury denies Comeau with his blocker

After two dramatic wins on the road, the Golden Knights won an emotional home opener in the wake of the Oct. 1 mass shooting on the Strip. At the end of a seven-game homestand, they were 8-1-0, and T-Mobile Arena was rocking. People inside and outside of the NHL kept waiting for them to come back to earth, especially when they were down to their fifth goaltender at one point in November, calling up 19-year-old prospect Dylan Ferguson from junior, but they never did.

"When the goalies got injured early, I thought they were toast," Dallas Stars GM Jim Nill said. "You've got to give them credit. They played the right game, protected their goalies until they got their goalies back. The young goalies came in, did a good job. It's a great story."

There has been no better individual story than William Karlsson, who seized the No. 1 center position. He'd never had more than nine goals or 25 points in an NHL season. He has 40 goals and 69 points through 76 games this season. But most of the roster has reached new highs in goals or points.

"I can't imagine a [bad] expansion team going to Vegas as the first [major league pro] sports team," said New Jersey Devils GM Ray Shero, who assisted GM David Poile when the Nashville Predators entered the NHL in 1998-99. "That would not reflect well on us. I think they've done the League a huge favor just by the product on the ice, the energy they've created there. I just think it's just a great thing. To get a head start on other leagues, there's a lot of things to be impressed about.

"When I went through the '98 expansion to Nashville, David talked about it all the time: 'Everything's about opportunity.' Barry Trotz was the first coach. Scouts. Players. A lot of guys are getting opportunities there and taking advantage of it."

Now they have to take advantage of another one in the playoffs.

"Any club that makes the playoffs can go on that run," McPhee said. "That's the beauty of today's NHL. It's harder to get in, but once you're in, anybody can go the distance."

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