The NHL has already scheduled the Seattle Kraken and Vegas Golden Knights for next season’s Winter Classic, the league’s biggest annual in-season event.
Wouldn’t it be insane if the January, 2024 outdoor game at Seattle’s T-Mobile Park turns out to be merely an encore to a “Spring Classic” between the two teams starting next week?
The superstitious among Kraken fans are surely aghast at the premature mention of the possibility, shouting “Jinx! Jinx!” The practical are already tut-tutting, “The Edmonton Oilers and Dallas Stars will have a whole lot to say about this.”
Well, yes, the Kraken and Golden Knights both have to win their second round series before the unlikeliest of Western Conference Finals could become a reality. But c’mon, take a leap of imagination.
Expansion Teams Didn’t Used To Win So Soon
Think of the gnashing of teeth around hockey if the two newest expansion franchises should advance to the final four of this year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs. New members of the fraternity aren’t only expected to contribute massive expansion fees (Vegas $500 million, Seattle $650 million). They also traditionally provide several seasons of cannon fodder for established clubs.
The 1967 expansionist Oakland Seals/Cleveland Barons knew their place, never winning a playoff series. It took a decade before the 1974 newcomer Washington Capitals won their first series, and 14 years and three different hometowns for the 1974 Kansas City Scouts/Colorado Rockies/New Jersey Devils to advance to the second round.
More recently, 1992-93 was an especially tough go for young franchises. The Ottawa Senators lost 70 games their first season, waiting six years to win a series. Also in ’92-’93, the second-season San Jose Sharks managed to be one game worse, losing an NHL record 71 games. In an amazing turnaround, the Sharks would win a playoff series the very next year.
Kraken and Knights Exceed Expectations
The Golden Knights already have experience upsetting the established order. Sports Illustrated called their 2017-18 expansion campaign, “One of the most unlikely in the history of sports.” They won 51 games in the regular season, and more remarkably, three playoff rounds as well.
Vegas surprised again this season, despite major roster restructuring. Gone were Max Pacioretty, Evgenii Dadonov, and Shea Weber. Hip surgery cancelled number one netminder Robin Lehner for the season, and captain Mark Stone only returned from injury to play 43 games. Somehow, the Golden Knights didn’t miss a beat, winning the Pacific Division with a 51-22-9 record.
The Kraken were an even bigger surprise (46-26-8), landing the first wild card spot out of that same Pacific Division. Instead of missing the playoffs as pundits predicted, Seattle won 19 more games and garnered 40 more points than in 2021-22. Without high-wattage superstars, coach Dave Hakstol expected and got production from all four lines, and the team set an NHL record with a 7-0 road trip. That turnaround has already earned Hakstol a Jack Adams Award nomination.
Head-to-head, the teams split a pair of early season meetings; the Golden Knights won 5-2 in Seattle, while the Kraken prevailed 4-2 in Las Vegas. The teams didn’t play again until the final two games of the regular season, both won by Vegas, 4-1 and 3-1. But in the weeks since, the Kraken’s “winning by committee” approach has dispatched the defending champion Colorado Avalanche. Seattle also leads its second round match-up 2-1, using seven different goal scorers Sunday night to bury the Dallas Stars, 7-2.
Vegas likewise leads its current series two games to one over the high-flying Oilers. So, really, how far-fetched is it to think that sometime next week, the second-year Kraken and sixth-year Golden Knights will drop the puck to see who gets to represent the Western Conference in the Stanley Cup Final?