By STEPHEN WHYNO, AP Hockey Writer
The Vegas Golden Knights’ unpredictable success has put them in an unexpected spot.
On pace for by far the best inaugural season for an expansion franchise in NHL history, the Golden Knights are closer to winning the Presidents’ Trophy as the team with the most points than they are to missing the playoffs. Going into the season, forwards James Neal, Jonathan Marchessault and David Perron all looked like potential trade bait in the final year of their contracts.
Now they are among the leading scorers for a team in first place.
Marchessault has already been re-signed to a $30 million, six-year contract, Neal was an All-Star and there are no signs that general manager George McPhee will do any kind of the selling off at the deadline that most expected.
“The plan was simple: If we’re in the hunt or a playoff spot, we want to stay in the hunt for a playoff spot,” McPhee said by phone last week. “And if we’re not, we’ll do what teams do when they’re not in the hunt. The focus every day is to be the best we can be and see where we are come the deadline.”
Vegas has a six-game road trip and a seven-game home stand before the Feb. 26 deadline. Visits to Central Division powerhouse Winnipeg, defending Stanley Cup-champion Pittsburgh and former McPhee stomping ground Washington will test the Golden Knights, but their jaw-dropping effort so far has given them a nine-point cushion atop the Pacific Division.
In addition to Marchessault, Perron and Neal, William Karlsson has been a revelation with a career-high 27 goals after scoring 28 in his first 183 games. Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury has been as good as everyone thought he would be after missing time with a concussion, and an unheralded blue line led by Nate Schmidt and Colin Miller has done the job.
Vegas has scored the third-most goals and allowed the sixth fewest. Can an expansion team top the list of Cup contenders? Maybe so, along with the Eastern Conference-leading Tampa Bay Lightning. Would McPhee see any way of being a buyer at the deadline and potentially cutting into the organization’s surplus of draft picks and prospects?
“It’s hard to answer now because that’s a month away,” McPhee said. “There’s a long way to go between now and then. At this point, we’ll try to stay in it. I don’t know whether we would add. I don’t have the answer to that question.”
Perhaps the Golden Knights’ only weakness is the power play, where…