Why Vegas is in Stanley Cup Finals again and Detroit Red Wings keep missing the playoffs

Detroit Free Press

For the second time in their six-year existence, the Vegas Golden Knights have advanced to the Stanley Cup Final – a span during which the Detroit Red Wings have failed to even make the playoffs.

How does an expansion team engender such success? For starters, the original Knights, which went to the Stanley Cup Final in 2018, were plucked from a tantalizingly talented round table, aka the Vegas expansion draft. Among those on offer in 2017 were: Marc-André Fleury, a three-time Stanley Cup champion; and forwards William Karlsson and Jonathan Marchessault. Fleury is gone from the organization but Karlsson and Marchessault remain cornerstones of the team’s success. Karlsson contributed a goal and two assists and Marchessault also had a goal in the Game 6 victory over the Dallas Stars that sent Vegas to the finals.

The Golden Knights have home-ice advantage when the series against the Florida Panthers begins Saturday (8 p.m., TNT, TBS).

Befitting considering the league’s $500 million expansion fee, the Golden Knights benefitted from the acrobatics performed by teams trying to outsmart the draft rules. Teams had a choice of protecting either seven forwards, three defensemen and one goaltender, or one goaltender and eight skaters regardless of position. (Only Florida, New Jersey, the New York Islanders, Pittsburgh, Nashville, Arizona and Los Angeles opted for the eight-skater choice.) This led to some doozy decisions.

One that especially stands out is Karlsson. The Swede originally was drafted by the Anaheim Ducks at No. 53 in 2011, but the Ducks dumped him in 2015 in a package deal for James Wisniewski, which is how Karlsson came to be with the Columbus Blue Jackets. The Blue Jackets were among numerous teams that made deals with the Golden Knights ahead of the draft to pre-determine which player would be selected. The Blue Jackets – an expansion team that, since inception in 2000, has advanced to the playoffs just six times, winning one first-round series and one qualifying round – traded a first-round pick and a second-round pick to Vegas to assure that the Golden Knights would select Karlsson. (From the Wings’ list, which included goaltender Petr Mrázek, the Knights nabbed Tomáš Nosek, who played in Vegas for four years.)

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A rich expansion draft and pre-arranged deals that in hindsight, look bad, helped the Golden Knights gain immediate traction. Karlsson went from scoring six goals in 81 games in 2016-17 with Columbus to netting 43 in 2017-18 with Vegas. He, Marchessault, William Carrier and Reilly Smith and defensemen Brayden McNabb and Shea Theodore are left over from the team that lost to the Washington Capitals in the 2018 Stanley Cup Final.

The Golden Knights’ early success came as the Wings were working on their biggest rebuild since emerging from the dregs that were the 1970s, when they were known as the Dead Wings. Pavel Datsyuk left in 2016, Henrik Zetterberg retired in 2018, and Niklas Kronwall in 2019. Meanwhile, after the expansion draft, the Knights used their draft capital to add more players, like acquiring Tomáš Tatar at the 2018 trade deadline in exchange for a first-round pick in 2018 (Joe Veleno), a second-round pick in 2019 (Robert Mastrosimone) and a third-round pick in 2021 (used to acquire Alex Nedeljkovic). The Knights were adding established players; the Wings, subtracting them.

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The Knights weren’t as successful in their second season, but they still made the playoffs, losing to the San Jose Sharks in the first round. In 2020, the Knights lost to the Stars in the conference final, and in 2021, to the Montreal Canadiens in the third round of the COVID-altered playoffs. The Knights missed the playoffs in 2022 but now are back for a second shot at the Cup.

Opportunistic trades have helped. At the 2019 deadline, when it appeared Mark Stone would not come to terms on a contract extension with the rebuilding Ottawa Senators, the Knights made a trade for the two-way forward, who had reached 20 goals in five consecutive seasons. The package deal from the Knights was highlighted by defenseman Erik Brännström, a former first-round pick who has become a regular in Ottawa, but certainly, at this point, the Knights look like they won the trade. They signed Stone to an eight-year extension the month after getting him, and he’s now their captain.

It’s tough to hold any team up against the Knights because that 2017 expansion draft really was so beneficial for them. They turned that early success into becoming a destination team, a place where players want to go – like defenseman Alex Pietrangelo, who signed there as a free agent, and forward Jack Eichel, another bold trade acquisition. It’s put the Knights on a path back to the final, while the Wings primarily have had to rely on the regular draft to resupply the franchise. It doesn’t help, of course, that the lottery has been so unkind to the Wings, pushing them back in 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020, and holding steady the past three lotteries.

Contact Helene St. James at hstjames@freepress.com. Follow her on Twitter @helenestjames. Read more on the Detroit Red Wings and sign up for our Red Wings newsletter. Her latest book, “On the Clock: Behind the Scenes with the Detroit Red Wings at the NHL Draft,” is available from  Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Triumph Books. Personalized copies available via her e-mail.

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