Are the Las Vegas Golden Knights already the greatest expansion team ever?
We'll be the first to admit that we're guilty of crowning just about anything "the greatest ever" these days, but so is everyone. It's 2018, and extreme exaggerations are all the rage. However, when it comes to the Las Vegas Golden Knights, it cannot be overstated just how absurd their run has been as an expansion team.
On Monday night, the Golden Knights took a 2-1 series lead over the San Jose Sharks in the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, putting them two wins away from the Western Conference Finals. A conference final berth would be just the latest in a series of "firsts"—like the first expansion team since 1980 to make the playoffs, first true expansion team to win its division in its inaugural season, and first team in NHL history to sweep its first playoff series, knocking out the L.A. Kings, a two-time winner of the Stanley Cup in the last seven seasons. The Knights aren't just a fun, underdog team clawing their way to a potentially historic Stanley Cup berth. They've been dominant from opening night, starting the season 8-1 before finishing with 51 wins, seven more than the next closest team in their division. After carrying 200/1 odds to win the Cup entering the season, the Golden Knights are now the co-favorites.
Has a team in any of the four major sports had this much success, this quickly? The simple answer is no, because no team has been this good in its inaugural season. Even if Vegas doesn't go on to win the Cup, it still will hold up as the greatest first season for an expansion team ever. For context, we looked back at the inaugural seasons of other expansion franchises that did have early success, but needed a few more years than Vegas to find it.
Of the 11 teams that have joined the NFL since 1960, only the Jags had the quickest taste of real success, and it took them a year to get their feet wet. After a 4-12 inaugural year in 1995, head coach Tom Coughlin led Jacksonville to a 9-7 record and an appearance in the AFC Championship game, which they lost on the road to the New England Patriots 20-6. That began a stretch of four straight playoff appearances for the Jags, the final one ending in a second AFC Championship game.
The Panthers joined the NFL the same season as the Jaguars and put together a 7-9 inaugural season, still the best mark for an expansion team in NFL history. The following season Carolina went 12-4 and beat the Dallas Cowboys in the first round of the playoffs, earning a spot in the NFC Championship, which they lost 30-13 to the Green Bay Packers. They failed to make the playoffs in any of the next six seasons, but did make the Super Bowl in 2003, losing to the New England Patriots 32-29. As far as expansion teams go, the Panthers and Jaguars came close to the immediate success of the Golden Knights, nearly facing off in a Super Bowl in 1996, but it still took each team a full year.
After a 65-97 inaugural year in 1998, the Arizona Diamondbacks went 100-62 in Year Two and became the only MLB expansion team to make the playoffs within its first two years. For comparison, it took the San Diego Padres 18 years to get there, and it took the Texas Rangers 35 (!!). While Arizona went on to lose to the New York Mets in the 1999 NLDS, the franchise, led by five-time Cy Young winner Randy Johnson, was able to win its only World Series in 2001, defeating the New York Yankees in walk-off fashion in Game 7.
Colorado went 67-95 in its first year, finishing only 37 games out of first place. They didn't get a fair chance to redeem themselves in 1994 as the playoffs were canceled due to the strike, but they did bounce back in Year Three, finishing 77-67 and earning a spot in the 1995 NLDS, which they lost to the Atlanta Braves. That success was short-lived, though, as the Rockies failed to make the playoffs in each of the next 11 years.
Judging by their first four years, immediate success was nowhere to be found for the Florida Marlins, who failed to put together a winning season from 1993-1996. But they did win a World Series in their fifth year, taking down the Cleveland Indians, who continue to chase their first ring since 1948. Then the Marlins won again in 2003 against the New York Yankees, giving them two rings in their first 10 seasons in the MLB. While they didn't burst onto the scene like the Golden Knights, they certainly capitalized on their early, big-time opportunities as a franchise.
Of the seven expansion teams since the 1976 NBA/ABA merger, not a single one made the postseason within its first three years in the association, proving it could be the hardest of the four leagues to find early success in. Only two of the seven teams, the Miami Heat and the Dallas Mavericks, have gone on to win the NBA Finals, and it took them both over 18 years to do so.
Since the World Hockey Association merger, the NHL has added 10 teams, including Vegas, and the other nine failed to make the playoffs in either of its first two seasons. Three of them did make it in their third, though, including the Florida Panthers, who made it all the way to the 1996 Stanley Cup Finals, beating historic franchises like the Boston Bruins, Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins along the way. They couldn't raise the Cup, being swept by the Colorado Avalanche, and haven't gotten out of the first round of the playoffs since.
San Jose Sharks
While the Panthers had at least once decent season in their first two years (33-34-17 in 1994), the Sharks had nothing but struggles in Years one and two, compiling a woeful record of 28-129-7 in 1991 and 1992. But then things turned quickly, with the Sharks making consecutive conference semifinals in 1993 and 1994, losing in both series. After a two-year playoff drought in '95 and '96, the Sharks have made the postseason 18 of the last 20 years, but still have yet to win the Cup.