Nobody expected the Vegas Golden Knights to be competitive in their inaugural season three years ago, especially with a roster of castoffs acquired from other franchises in the expansion draft.
They would lose a few games, trade off the few usable pieces at the deadline for young talent or draft picks, and start building a competitive team. Remember, “Cup in six” was always the plan.
But those castoffs starting winning games. They almost instantly also won our hearts, creating a bond that fans in the city had never experienced because this was our first major professional franchise.
We affectionately called them the Golden Misfits, a group of players who many in the community identified with because we also were the underdog. Outsiders felt the franchise would fail in the nontraditional hockey market of Las Vegas, projecting fews wins and game nights contested in a half-empty arena.
We proved them wrong.
This roster of no-name players reached the Stanley Cup Final in their maiden season, and over three campaigns has been one of the NHL’s finest teams. Vegas, with standing room-only crowds creating a distinct home-ice advantage, has become one of the league’s best markets.
But a pair of trips to the Western Conference Final in three seasons isn’t enough, which is why management has made calculated moves to get over the hump. Whether it was firing a coach with a winning record, benching a future Hall of Fame goalie or slowly breaking up the Misfits, the moves have upgraded the product on the ice.
Yet, this move stings.
Nate Schmidt, a player we love and can relate to, and who was still a significant contributor, was traded to Vancouver to make room for someone we aren’t familiar with but who promises to be an upgrade.
Alex Pietrangelo was the most sought after free agent on the market, agreeing late Monday to a seven-year contract with the Golden Knights at $8.8 million per season against the salary cap. He was the captain of the St. Louis Blues, a Stanley Cup champion, and undoubtedly one of the league’s best defenders.
He could be the player who provides the final push to lift Vegas to a championship.
The signing meant Vegas had to shed cap space, which led to parting with Schmidt, who had five years left on his deal at a $5.95 million cap hit. When Vegas opens the next season, there are expected to be less than 10 players left from the original team.
Trading away a fan favorite or breaking up a winning team is common in professional sports, especially as the modern era of analytics drives decisions. Team chemistry, unfortunately, often isn’t at the top of the priority list.
If that were the case, Schmidt still might be on the roster. He’s easily one of the most beloved players in franchise history — with teammates and fans alike.
“This game, this business, the job that I have often requires really hard decisions on good people. I’ve never worked with a finer man in my career than Nate,” Golden Knights general manager Kelly McCrimmon said. “There is only one scenario, one situation, where we would have considered a trade involving Nate Schmidt, and that was exactly the situation that presented ourselves with the opportunity to add Alex to our team.”
Golden Knights fans are waking up today with a feeling they’ve rarely experienced. We, after all, don’t have years of disappointment in losing notable players. Is it still acceptable to wear his No. 88 at T-Mobile Arena?
Well, at least a few times each season when Schmidt and the Canucks come to town. His first game back will surely be emotional for all.
“Last night was hard. You put down roots somewhere and you’re there from the beginning, and that’s special. Not many guys can say they’re somewhere from the ground up,” Schmidt said. “... Forever a Misfit. Our run together is something that can’t be matched.”