Thursday, April 13, 2023 | 2 a.m.
If you were to ask anyone six years ago that one day, NHL teams in Las Vegas and Seattle would be competing for the Stanley Cup, your response might be the same as Brayden McNabb’s.
“If you told me seven years ago, or eight years ago, I’d be really shocked,” said the Golden Knights’ defenseman.
Welcome to the NHL in 2023, where expansion teams are seemingly given the keys to the kingdom and are gifted contending teams from the get-go.
That narrative may be played out from Vegas’ string of success over the years, but with the league’s two newest teams — the Golden Knights and Seattle Kraken — playing postseason hockey this spring, it’s a narrative worth closing.
Vegas and Seattle finish the regular season at Climate Pledge Arena in Seattle on Thursday (7 p.m., ESPN) with plenty still to play for.
The Golden Knights need one point — via overtime/shootout loss or an outright win — to clinch their third Pacific Division title in six seasons. That would also give Vegas the top seed in the Western Conference, securing home-ice advantage until the Stanley Cup Final and a first-round date with the Winnipeg Jets at home starting Monday or Tuesday.
Vegas is coming off a 4-1 win against the Kraken on Tuesday in its home finale, with Thursday completing the home-and-home.
“I don’t think we’ve had too many games that have been a walk in the park in the last few weeks,” forward Reilly Smith said. “It’s good to be challenged at the end of the regular season.”
There may never be a team that comes close to replicating what the Golden Knights did in Year 1, defying all logic and making the Stanley Cup Final and coming within three victories of having a parade down Las Vegas Boulevard.
Maybe in another decade or two, or whenever expansion is brought to the forefront again in any league, there will be a chance.
But the Golden Knights didn’t play for the short game of being a contender immediately. They made 10 trades to acquire eight draft picks. After taking advantage of teams that were strapped
Vegas maintained that success with two more Western Conference Final appearances since that time and added Jack Eichel and Alex Pietrangelo to the lineup.
“There wasn’t a lot of room for success from media, the fan base, everything,” Smith said. “Everyone was just glad there was a team here with no expectation.”
The Kraken went in the opposite direction. They didn’t wheel and deal as Vegas did.
They relied on their expansion picks to be part of their core. Jared McCann (40 goals), Vince Dunn (64 points) and Jordan Eberle (63 points) have elevated the Kraken to 19 more wins and a 100-point season.
Seattle also built through free agency much more aggressively in Year 1 than the Golden Knights did, signing Vezina Trophy finalist Philipp Grubauer, and Stanley Cup-winning forward Andre Burakovsky.
Both teams had the same rules in constructing their rosters — selecting a minimum of 20 players with teams protecting seven forwards, three defensemen and a goalie, or eight skaters and a goalie.
“I think it’s good for expansion owners that want to get into the game. They don’t have to wait that long,” coach Bruce Cassidy said. “Compared to Nashville or San Jose back in the day, you’re getting some real, legitimate players.”
There’s a chance that the Kraken and Golden Knights could meet in the first round of the playoffs. If Seattle beats Vegas and the Los Angeles Kings lose to the Anaheim Ducks on Thursday, the Kraken would be the No. 3 seed in the Pacific.
A chance to play Seattle at least six consecutive times is on the table for the Golden Knights.
Seattle’s success is also a reminder in what the Golden Knights have accomplished in six seasons. Being in the playoffs for the fifth time in six seasons — after missing it for the first time ever last season — has brought some energy back to the Knights.
Seven of the eight playoff teams have eclipsed 100 points. But the road to get to the end could go through Vegas.
“We’ve put our feet embedded into a good group in the NHL, and we’re pushing for the playoffs every single year,” Smith said, “and I think we’re going to be competitive for a long time.”