McPhee, 59, said that he and his staff used advanced statistics and customized software to craft the roster. He also interviewed Clarke and Doug Risebrough, the former general manager of the Minnesota Wild who, like Clarke, got his franchise deep into the playoffs shortly after it entered the league.
McPhee sought players capable of playing an up-tempo style, in step with owner Bill Foley’s assertion that “hockey should never be boring.” The team largely chose young players with some experience who were not yet headed toward restricted free agency and appeared to have room to expand their respective roles.
“Doug Risebrough encouraged us to go for the unknown surprises,” McPhee said. “Don’t get the guys with big names now, get the guys who will be big names down the road.”
That strategy paid off in spades. Of the 22 players who dressed in 30 or more games for Vegas, 13 of them posted career highs in points. It was not just a matter of entry-level players developing; players in their 30s also produced their best campaigns.
Perhaps the most striking example was center William Karlsson, 25, who had 18 goals in 183 games with Columbus and Anaheim before this season, but scored 43 goals in 82 games for the Golden Knights.
The door opened for Karlsson when Vadim Shipachyov, the Knights’ first marquee signing, did not make the team out of training camp and returned to Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League.
“Not having that player make the team may have been our best move all year because it sent the message to everyone that nothing matters other than the way you compete and perform,” McPhee said.
Karlsson, formerly a checking center who last scored 20 goals in junior hockey, said he made no drastic changes to his routine or his body. He also said that he was not exactly a film buff when it comes to video scouting.
“Hockey is a game of instincts, and that’s how I play my best,” Karlsson said.
He has embraced his newfound role, which has attracted other teams’ top defensive pairings.
“I want to be that guy that leads the team; I put that pressure on myself,” he said.
The Florida Panthers furnished the Knights with Karlsson’s linemates, Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith, receiving only a fourth-round draft pick in return. Marchessault and Smith combined for 135 points in 144 games playing for their former Florida coach, Gerard Gallant, who was fired by the Panthers early last season.
Left wing Erik Haula, 27, netted 55 points, and the veteran forward David Perron, 29, had 66; both were career bests.
Haula was one of several Knights who said that the team benefited from individuals vying for playing time early on.
“It was all level, square ground when we started and it worked itself out,” he said.
On defense, the Knights kept younger, less heralded players who fit the team’s identity over more proven veterans. They traded experienced defensemen for draft picks, and instead relied on players like Colin Miller, 25, Nate Schmidt, 26, and Shea Theodore, 23, all of whom had been striving to become regulars with their previous clubs.
In net, Marc-Andre Fleury, 33 years old and a three-time Stanley Cup champion, put up the best save percentage and goals-against average of his career.
The individual accomplishments translated into collective achievements. The Golden Knights set the record for wins by an expansion franchise in its inaugural season in early February, and by the end of the month they had also set the record for points by an expansion team with more than five weeks to play.
That was despite a stretch early in the season when they used four goalies in seven games because of injuries. Over the last three months of the season, their skaters were thinned out by injuries as well, even after the addition of Tomas Tatar and Ryan Reaves at the trade deadline. The team was able to surmount injuries and finish with 109 points, fifth most in the N.H.L. They remained in first place in the Pacific Division from Dec. 23 onward.
At some point, the qualifier “for an expansion team” disappeared, and the Knights considered themselves contenders.
“Our team was pretty solid and we kept getting better with time,” Fleury said. “We had lots of injuries and we were still winning games consistently. That’s when I figured out this team was for real.”
The Knights have been embraced as the first major professional sports franchise in Las Vegas. Defenseman Deryk Engelland, who at 36 also set a his career-best in scoring, had played for the minor-league Las Vegas Wranglers and met his wife in Vegas. He has seen hockey in the desert town take off, not only among visitors and transplants, but locals as well.
“Everywhere you go, there’s Knights gear everywhere, all around town, and there’s more and more everyday,” Engelland said.
Engelland gave a speech to the fans before the Knights’ home opener, just days after the Oct. 1 shooting that killed 58 people on the Las Vegas Strip. The team retired the number 58 in honor of the victims, and on the same night they defeated the San Jose Sharks to clinch the division crown.
McPhee said what the Knights have accomplished on the ice was secondary to what the team could contribute to the city’s recovery from the vicious attack.
“The hockey team has been a nice story in Las Vegas, in this country and around the world,” he said. “But we all know the bigger story here was October 1. We’ve tried to do our share in this community in helping people grieve, heal and persevere.”