Weekly Reader: Is free-agent fear fueling Vegas' success? Plus, is John Tavares an Islander for life?

ByGreg Wyshynski ESPN logo
Friday, December 22, 2017

The NHL Weekly Reader publishes every Friday. Seen something worth highlighting here? Hit me atgreg.wyshynski@espn.com.

Theories abound as to why the Vegas Golden Knights are an unprecedented success for a modern NHL expansion team, with a 22-9-2 record through Friday.

The "Vegas Flu," which we covered extensively this week, might help explain why their opponents have struggled at T-Mobile Arena, where the Knights are 14-2-1. But it doesn't explain how the Knights themselves have been so revelatory -- third in the league in goals per game (3.45), on the positive side for possession and exceeding expectations for a team thrown together in June.

So since theories abound, here's another one: The Knights have an extraordinary number of carrots dangling in front of them.

It begins with ice time, and the constant battle to earn it.

"We turn over four lines. We turn over six defensemen," Vegas coach Gerard Gallant said. "Guys like being a big part of our team. It's a team win for us every night."

The Knights aren't in the business of overplaying star players, because they don't have any, at least not yet. Instead, they come at you in waves, each line hungry to earn critical minutes in critical situations -- from the top line, with David Perron and James Neal;to the dynamic line with Reilly Smith, William Karlsson and Jonathan Marchessault;to the bludgeoning forechecking of the increasingly impressive Alex Tuch and his line.

"I'm a true believer that it takes 20 guys to win a hockey game," Gallant said. "I'm not just going to overplay the top guys. When guys play the right amount of minutes, then they play their best hockey."

But every team battles for ice time and increased roles. That's not unusual. What is unusual about the Golden Knights is how hard they're fighting to remain Golden Knights.

Being an expansion team means having a number of expiring contracts on your roster. The Knights have 14 of them. They have 13 players under contract for next season, but that hardly guarantees they'll be back for Year 2 of the expansion franchise.

The Knights have players playing for contract extensions in Vegas -- or, failing that, free-agent contracts elsewhere. And they all want to remain as competitive as possible to keep this team together through the trade deadline. Which, again, is nuts considering that this team that looked likely to be selling like a QVC host by the deadline might instead hang onto its talent all season. So here we are.

You hear all the time about NHL teams and players being "fat and happy," flush with long-term contracts with trade protection. The Golden Knights have just three active players with some level of trade protection. Two of them, Neal and Perron, will be unrestricted free agents next summer.

Can their success be credited to this contractual uncertainty for half the roster and the general ambiguity about all the players' futures?

"There might be something to your theory. It is important that the players stay hungry, and this is part of the motivation," said Vegas GM George McPhee. "It's not like we had a whole lot of choice in selecting players, but there might be something to that. But there are also guys on longer-term deals who are playing just as hard as those who don't have one."

McPhee never shied away from issuing long-term deals when he was running the Washington Capitals-- sometimes to the point where the comfort of the Caps' core players was cited as a factor in their lack of postseason success. But McPhee doesn't believe that was necessarily the case.

"We did a 13-year deal once that did very, very well," he said of the $124 million deal Washington gave Alex Ovechkin in 2008."It worked on the cap, and he played even harder after the deal.

"I don't know that there's a golden rule," McPhee continued. "You treat every situation like a case-by-case basis. The organization comes first. The individual comes a close second. And you try to figure out what's best."

What was best for the Knights in their expansion draft and inaugural season? Character players, said McPhee, when asked why the room is battling so hard to avoid a trade deadline breakup.

"That's an easier answer: We worked really, really hard in vetting people, trying to determine that we weren't only getting ability but we were getting real good people," he said. "And we have a real good group of guys. We did that with every position in the organization: [looking for someone who is] highly skilled but a hard worker with a real low ego."

That's not to say no ego. McPhee sought out players who wanted to show their old teams they could excel in expanded roles, who wanted to fight for ice time and who wanted to post numbers that defied the expectations placed on them and the team.

"There has to be enough ego to play well on the ice, and that takes something deep in your soul. But not enough ego where you're big-dogging it off the ice," he said.

There are no big dogs in the Vegas room. Just highly motivated winners.

"We've got real hockey players. There's no Sidney Crosby, but we've got real good players," Gallant said. "I don't think a lot of people consider them superstars, but they're real good hockey players."

Happy hockey holidays

Christmas season is here, which means that NHL teams are overloading social media feeds with all sorts of kitschy holiday goodness. Like the San Jose Sharks, the pioneers of this sort of thing -- who among us can forget "Holiday Sweater" and Slappy, Joe Thornton's Christmas dummy? -- who delivered an animated classic this season:

I nearly lost it duringJoe Pavelski's Herb Brooks speech. I totally lost it every time Tomas Hertl spoke.

Meanwhile, the Pittsburgh Penguins unleashed a preposterously funny spin on "A Christmas Story," with players in drag, Crosby nearly shooting his eye out and Phil Kessel finally finding his true calling: a frazzled dad from the 1950s.

There's really only one thing that could distract us from Kris Letang in a pink bunny suit, and it's Ryan Reaves in a Lucille Ball wig.

Vegas hockey jackpots

This has been like Vegas Week here at ESPN, but permit me one more nugget from my visit to Sin City.

The Golden Knights are redefining plenty in their first season, and one of those things is the fan experience before home games. Sure, like other NHL cities, you have your pick of bars and restaurants and a team-sponsored fan fest outside of T-Mobile Arena. But you also have the chance to hop across the street, check the odds and lay money on the game you're about to watch -- legally.

This is fast becoming tradition for Golden Knights games, especially as the team continues to win at home in high-scoring games. I spoke with a few tellers at sportsbooks located near the arena, and they all shared the same anecdotal observation: There has been a boom in wagering on hockey when the Knights are playing at home.

When Vegas has a home game, action on the Golden Knights on those nights surpasses the combined wagering on every other NHL game that day, according to the sportsbooks. One reason: All the fans who have been traveling to watch their teams face Vegas and are making a multiday trip of it.

That also plays into the other ancillary benefit of having NHL fans travel to Vegas: The action on Stanley Cup prop bets has gone off the charts, as visiting fans place wagers on their own teams to potentially win the Cup at significant odds.

This is all an uptick from the start of the season, when wagering during the Knights' opening-night game was "pretty light," according to MGM vice president of race and sports Jay Rood, who also told ESPN, "It's rare you find someone at the game who bet the game."

But as the Knights keep winning, the action appears to be increasing. And let's not forget another big factor in their success: Those savvy bettors who optimistically dropped money on them before the season. Their over/under on total season wins was 24.5; they're already at 22 wins with 49 games left. The Knights were also 33-to-1 to win the Pacific Division; they're currently two points behind the Los Angeles Kings with three games in hand.

The marriage of hockey wagering and hockey watching speaks to a confluence of the activities that people like Capitals owner Ted Leonsis have been predicting for some timeand which have already begun with things like daily fantasy. "The next big growth arena for media content and team owners will be gambling. It's just a matter of time," Leonsis told Bloomberg in February 2017.

Now, if we can just keep this offensive surge in the NHL going to make betting on hockey moderately more appealing to casual sports gamblers ...

Listen to ESPN On Ice

This week's episode of our ESPN On Ice podcast featured an interview with Vegas defenseman Deryk Engelland, a look at the relocation threats of Senators owner Eugene Melnyk and an extended discussion about player safety and video review. Listen here or download it weekly on iTunes.

Isle of fine print

Look, the New York metropolitan area needs another arena like it needs another $1 pizza shop or another Uber driver, but the fact that the New York Islanders have won their bid to build one at Belmont Park deserved the celebration it received this week. The hard-core Islanders fans who stuck with this team through about a decade of arena drama, including the folly of the Brooklyn relocation, deserve this stability.

But now that the champagne has dried up ... um, they have a few issues to resolve.

There need to be road improvements. There needs to be a rethinking of how to access the site by Long Island Railroad, given how many parking spaces at Belmont this project is going to swallow up and given that accessing it now from Long Island requires a transfer to a completely different train en route to it.

Who pays for that?

"Whatever it ends up costing to run LIRR trains, the public is likely to pick up the tab," writes Aaron Gordon of The Village Voice. "There are almost no examples of private arena or stadium owners paying for public transportation and infrastructure improvements or services -- most infamously, the Washington Nationals owner has repeatedly refused to pay for extended Metro service to get fans home after playoff games -- even if it only serves their building."

The Islanders were lauded for their announcement that $1 billion in private funds will fuel the project. But from a public-financing standpoint, they appear to be getting a major break on rent.

"[Rent of] $40 million over 49 years is an absolutely pathetic payment for 43 acres of land," wrote Neil deMause of Field of Schemes, which tracks the economics of sports stadiums and arenas. "That's maybe $10-15 million in present value -- here's a tenth-of-an-acre vacant lot in nearby Floral Park that's going for $729,000, which would imply that the Belmont Park property should be worth around $313 million, or more than 20 times what the Islanders are paying for it."

Again, the devil is in the details. But the big news remains that the Islanders won the bid, are on track to build the best arena they've ever called home, and that all of this could cement John Tavares as an Islander for life ... even if he was noncommittal about it at the news conference.

Jersey Fouls of the Week

From reader Glen Russell:

These guys really need to a recruit a new friend to wear a Peter Lawford jersey.

Meanwhile ...

This is a Foul within a Foul: a nonsensical Frankenjersey mashing up the Anaheim Ducks and the Detroit Red Wings, and two fans wearing them to a Ducks game at the Islanders. We'll go ahead and assume they have some relationship with Anaheim goalie Ryan Miller and former Red Wing Drew Miller, and that literally everything else they own was in the hamper.

More dumb centennial stuff

Congratulations to a guy who scored five goals in five different ways in a regular-season game -- and who won the title of The Greatest Moment in NHL History over a guy who won the Stanley Cup for his team and whose leaping celebratory aftermath created one of the most memorable photos in sports history.

Look, I'm the last guy to criticize the absurdity of fan voting. But c'mon, people: Bobby Orr, all day.

Puck headlines

What a remarkable moment for the National Women's Hockey League:Buffalo Sabresowners Terry and Kim Pegula have acquired the Buffalo Beauts, offering deeper pockets and more stability than any other team in the women's league could have dreamed of. [Buffalo News]

Very interesting look at the KHL investment in China. Said Red Star chairman Zhao Xiaoyu: "If you don't win the game, people will lose interest. The only way to keep them interested is to keep winning. You also have to have some Chinese names on the jerseys . . . We would naturally prefer to see Asian faces." [FT]

I was proud to take part in the 2017 Creamer Awards for the best sports logos of the year. Congrats to the utter hubris of the Toronto Maple Leafs. [Sports Logos]

Compared to other Dallas sports, being a Stars fan is a breeze. [Blackout Dallas]

Taking and pointing a state trooper's gun is generally frowned upon for high school hockey coaches. [NJ.com]

Matt Duchene is still struggling through his difficult start in Ottawa, including a denial that he was traded for Kyle Turris. "Here's the problem ... everyone only judges on numbers," he said. "If you look at it, everything has been there for us, other than production. Everything. If you look at the chances for, versus chances against, shots on net, all that stuff, possession." [Ottawa Sun]

Finally, this amazing thing:

Hockey tl;dr (too long; didn't read)

In which Dom Luszczyszyn of The Athleticfixes the NHL's broken points system.

In case you missed this from your friends at ESPN

The fantasy hockey holiday wish for all 31 teams, from the Sabres not trading Evander Kane to the Penguins keeping Bryan Rust in the bottom six.