The 2017-18 NHL season has been a needed reminder that we're still capable of being surprised. The Vegas Golden Knights, who were listed with odds as high as 500-1 to win the championship before the season, are not supposed to be representing the Western Conference in the upcoming Stanley Cup Final. To claim a conference title in your first year of existence is nearly unthinkable. As FiveThirtyEight pointed out, the Knights are just the second expansion team to make it to the finals in a big-four American sport since 1960, following in the footsteps of the 1967-68 St. Louis Blues, who accomplished their feat when the NHL had just 12 teams, six of which were expansion franchises all in the same conference.
Even modest success for a modern expansion team is virtually unprecedented. The NHL has expanded with nine teams since the WHA merger in 1979, and not one of those teams made the postseason in one of its first two seasons of existence, let alone made the Final. It has taken those teams an average of 4.7 years to make their first trip to the playoffs. No true expansion team in the four major sports in that time frame has made it past the regular season in its debut season. The last time a team with a roster full of new players -- as opposed to a team created by a league merger or a franchise relocation -- made the postseason in its debut campaign was that 1967-68 NHL season, a full 50 years ago.
It has been suggested that the Golden Knights benefited from a kinder expansion draft than their predecessors, but as ESPN's Emily Kaplan and Greg Wyshynski point out, the idea that people knew the Golden Knights were going to be good is revisionist history. This is a stunning achievement from an organization everybody was counting out before the campaign began, in an era when it should be tougher than ever to surprise fans. The expanded leagues and their playoff structures, the era of analytics, and broad access to televised games and tape should make it far more difficult than ever before to sneak up out of nowhere into the championship. It happened anyway.
Are the Golden Knights the most unlikely finalists in modern American sports history? It's certainly possible. In April 2016, I looked at Leicester's stunning rise to the top of the Premier League and found that it was among the most unexpected titlists in recent memory. But it fell short of clubs such as Kaiserslautern and Nottingham Forest, which won top division titles in the first season after being promoted.
Let's operate under the same idea but shift our vision a bit. Obviously, as the Knights haven't yet won the Stanley Cup, we'll be looking at finalists as opposed to league champions. Given that top-flight European soccer leagues don't use a playoff to decide a winner, we'll leave them out. I'm also going to try to find teams that had low expectations heading into a season, as opposed to merely looking at teams that went from poor to great. The 2007-08 Celtics went from 24-58 to 66-16, but they also acquired Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett during the offseason. They're not a great comp for the Knights (if anyone is).
I'll use the same prorated quantitative methodology from the Leicester article and mix it with some qualitative common sense to find the most unlikely finalists in each league going back through 1970. Given that we're not going to see any expansion teams, we're looking for organizations that seemed hopeless for years before suddenly making their way into the postseason. Do any of them match up to the Blues of 1967-68 or this season's Knights? And are we seeing more surprises now than we have in years past?
There haven't been many out-of-nowhere NBA finalists without an obvious, dramatic change in personnel. The 2007-08 Celtics went from a Big One to a Big Three. The 1995-96 Bulls improved by 20 wins and won a title, but that was with a full season from Michael Jordan, who played only 17 regular-season games in his return from minor league baseball the previous season. The 2014-15 Cavaliers also improved by 20 wins, thanks to the return of LeBron James. None of these vaguely resembles the Golden Knights.
While there are perennial playoff teams such as the 1971-72 Lakers and 1989-90 Trail Blazers that suddenly went from good to great, the closest NBA comparison to the Golden Knights is probably the 2001-02 Nets, who went from 26-56 and way out of the postseason all the way to the NBA Finals one year later. Byron Scott's team had posted just one winning record in the previous seven seasons and hadn't won a playoff game since May 4, 1994. The key transaction saw the Nets trade Stephon Marbury as part of a package to acquire Jason Kidd, who finished second in MVP voting.
Even the unlikely turn of the Nets, though, doesn't come close to matching the out-of-nowhere nature of the 2017-18 Golden Knights. The Nets had the assets to trade for Kidd and lined him up alongside Keith Van Horn and former first overall pick Kenyon Martin. It helped when general manager Rod Thorn pulled off a heist during the 2001 draft, sending Eddie Griffin to the Rockets for three first-round picks, two of whom -- Jason Collins and Richard Jefferson -- immediately became rotation contributors. But the Nets had far more to work with in piecing together their team than the Knights did before this season. Expectations for the Nets were correspondingly higher.
Verdict: More likely finalists than the Knights.
Between the 1967-68 Blues and this season's Golden Knights, the NHL didn't feature many teams that made an enormous leap into the Stanley Cup Final. The 2003-04 Hurricanes finished with the league's eighth-worst record before the lockout, then finished tied for third in points before winning the Stanley Cup in 2005-06. But the lockout netted young players such as Eric Staal and Cam Ward crucial development time, while veterans played abbreviated schedules in Europe or sat. The Hurricanes were also just three seasons removed from making it to the Stanley Cup Final in the 2001-02 season and still had core contributors such as Rod Brind'Amour and Erik Cole on the roster.
Those Hurricanes improved by 36.1 adjusted points. Just behind them are the 1973-74 Sabres (35.9 adjusted points), who are the closest thing we'll find to the Golden Knights. The Sabres made it to the Final in their fifth year as a franchise, having drafted Gilbert Perreault and Rick Martin before adding Rene Robert to fill in what would be immortalized as the French Connection. Buffalo made it to the playoffs just once in its first four seasons, losing in six games to the eventual Cup champion Canadiens. The Sabres finished fifth in the eight-team East division in 1972-73, with 76 points, only to jump to 113 points the following season as the league expanded and moved to a four-division structure. They lost to the Flyers in six games and didn't make it back to the Stanley Cup Final until Dominik Hasek's peak in the late '90s.
The other teams that have made huge strides include playoff contenders that went from good to dominant (1972-73 Flyers and 2012-13 Blackhawks) and an organization that went all in for a title after trading for Mark Messier (1993-94 Rangers). The 2002-03 Mighty Ducks deserve an honorable mention, given that they finished last in the Pacific Division three straight times and had just one playoff series victory in their first nine years as a franchise before streaking to the Cup Final as a 40-win team during Mike Babcock's first season as an NHL head coach.
While Jeff Friesen celebrated his trade out of Anaheim just before that Cup season by suggesting there was no light at the end of the tunnel in Anaheim, the Ducks had far more going for them than this season's Knights, given the presence of proven stars such as Paul Kariya and Petr Sykora. (Friesen's new team, the Devils, beat the Ducks to win that year's Stanley Cup.) The Sabres had time to draft and develop two franchise-caliber forwards before breaking out. The Knights were able to draft James Neal and were lucky that players such as Jonathan Marchessault and William Karlsson were left unprotected, but they didn't have the time to develop and/or trade for a core of talent like these other organizations enjoyed.
Verdict: More likely finalists than the Knights.
There are far more plausible candidates to compete with the Knights in the two remaining sports. Pennsylvania-based readers might naturally be thinking about the defending Super Bowl champion Eagles right now, given that Carson Wentz & Co. were coming off two consecutive 7-9 seasons before they won the NFC East at 13-3 and ran the playoff table with Nick Foles.
The 2017 Philadelphia Eagles were unlikely champions, but given that they were a team with consecutive 10-win seasons in 2013 and 2014, we can do better. The obvious candidate is arguably the most unlikely championship team in American sports history. The 1999 St. Louis Rams were coming off a 4-12 season, their second consecutive last-place finish in the NFC West. Dick Vermeil's team hadn't made the playoffs or posted a winning record in any of its nine previous campaigns, which produced a mark of 45-99. Even worse, starting quarterback Trent Green went down with a torn ACL and MCL in his knee during the Rams' third preseason game, turning things over to a 28-year-old backup with one career NFL game under his belt.
You know what happened, of course. Kurt Warner stepped in and directed one of the best offenses in league history to a 13-3 season and the franchise's first Super Bowl victory. Imagine if the 2017 Jacksonville Jaguars -- who were 47-97 the past nine seasons -- lost Blake Bortles during the preseason and won a Super Bowl with third-stringer Ryan Nassib at the helm. Nobody can even pretend they saw the Rams coming.
There's another team that belongs in this discussion, but you won't believe me when I mention them. This organization had gone 39-79 (.330) in the previous eight seasons, which included one 8-6 campaign and seven losing seasons. They posted consecutive 2-14 seasons before improving to 6-10. Their starting quarterback was a third-round pick entering his third NFL season with a total of eight starts to his name, in which his team had gone 2-6. Oh, and the four-team division included franchises that finished 11-5 and 12-4. Not exactly a glowing résumé.
That team was the 1981 San Francisco 49ers. Their head coach was Bill Walsh. The quarterback was Joe Montana. They went 13-3, won a pretty famous game over the Cowboys with a pretty famous catch from Dwight Clark, then beat the Bengals in the Super Bowl. That was the beginning of a stretch that included four Super Bowl victories in a nine-year span.
Of the two, the Rams have at least a viable case for competing with the Golden Knights, given that they had been truly dreadful for the better part of a decade and were down to what appeared to be a replacement-level quarterback for an entire NFL season. Even they might not top Vegas, though. Those Rams were 200-1 to win the Super Bowl before that NFL season began. The Golden Knights were anywhere between 50-1 and 500-1, depending on when you bet.
Verdict: The Rams are in the Knights' ballpark.
Let's finish with the fourth and final sport, where there are several teams that might have a fighting chance against the Knights in the upset wars. Heck, we have to run through a list of honorable mentions before getting to the three best candidates:
The 2002 Los Angeles Angels had not made the playoffs in 15 years and went from 75-87 to 99-63 with a World Series win over the Giants.
The 2006 Detroit Tigers hadn't made the playoffs in 18 years or posted a winning season in 13 tries before making it to the World Series under Jim Leyland.
The 1993 Philadelphia Phillies improved by 27 wins after not making the playoffs for nine consecutive seasons, only to lose in Game 6 of the World Series on that Joe Carter home run.
The 1991 Minnesota Twins went from worst-to-first and improved by 21 games in claiming the World Series, though they had won baseball's biggest honor four years earlier with much of the same core.
Start with the team those 1991 Twins faced. In a 25-year stretch between moving to Atlanta in 1966 and starting the 1991 season, the Braves made just two playoff appearances and failed to win a single postseason game. They finished in either fifth or sixth place in each of the six previous seasons and were coming off a 65-97 campaign under Bobby Cox. Those 1991 Braves subsequently started a nearly two-decade run of success by going 94-68 and beating the Pirates in a desperately tight National League Championship Series before facing off in a classic World Series against the Twins.
Even the Braves could call on some faint history of past success, though. That wasn't true for the 2008 Rays, who had been a laughingstock and a retirement home for aging players during the team's anonymous first decade in baseball. Tampa had finished last in the AL East nine times during its 10-season reign and didn't appear to be actively improving. The Devil Rays went 66-96 during the 2007 season with horrific fielding and relief work, and when Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA model projected the Rays to improve to 88-74, it was mostly met with derision.
As it turns out, PECOTA was off by nine wins, but not in the direction everyone expected. The Rays made a massive defensive leap in jumping all the way to 97-65, a 31-win improvement by a team that had never topped 70 in a season. The Rays then flew through the White Sox and Red Sox before falling to the Phillies in the World Series.
While the Rays succeeded by leveraging analytics and a talented set of young players, the 1969 New York Mets didn't have the benefit of big data. They're the closest comp to the Rays as an expansion team with no track record of success before their breakthrough season. The Mets debuted in 1962 and didn't come close to a winning campaign in their first seven seasons in the league, during which they won an average of 56.6 games and finished in ninth or 10th place seven times in seven tries.
Gil Hodges took over in 1968, and his team finally showed signs of life by jumping from 61-101 to 73-89-1, but they were still 25 games back of a would-be pennant in the 10-team National League. When the NL expanded and moved to a two-division structure in 1969, the Miracle Mets pounced. Tom Seaver & Co. went 100-62, winning their division by eight games before sweeping the Braves in the NLCS and upsetting the heavily favored Orioles in the World Series.
The Rays are the closest candidates to the Golden Knights here; although they had years to build up a farm system, they were playing in a division with two juggernauts in the Red Sox and Yankees while operating at a significant financial disadvantage. Even the Rays, though, seem to fall short in comparison to the Golden Knights, given that their preseason odds to win the World Series were at 200-1.
Verdict: The Rays belong in the debate.
What we learned
At worst, the Knights have to be in the running for the most surprising finalist in modern American sports history. If you're asking me or looking at the Vegas odds, it seems likely that the Golden Knights are the most unexpected conference winners in at least a half-century. To pull this off with no time to develop draft picks into superstars or press any sort of significant financial advantage is unreal. If you want to put them in a group with the Rays and Rams, I won't disagree, but even those teams had the ability to push through more young talent. The Knights picked sixth in this year's draft and unsurprisingly left Cody Glass in the minors.
Vegas' season is a reminder that even with all the information we have in 2018, we're still capable of being surprised. Leicester City might represent a larger upset given the (perhaps apocryphal) reports that it was listed at 5,000-1 to win the Premier League in 2015-16. But even the Golden Knights didn't think anything like this was remotely close to possible. And even if they had projected a stunning push into the playoffs, nobody in Vegas would have believed that the team's leading scorer would be William Karlsson, who scored 18 goals in his first 183 NHL games before racking up 43 goals this season.
There were some things we couldn't possibly project. Nobody could have predicted that Karlsson would score on 23.4 percent of his shots, if only because that's an incredible outlier. What we should be reminded of, though, is just how much variance and small samples can mean in an 82-game season, let alone a 16-game football campaign. Karlsson was a cast-off Columbus foisted onto Vegas along with a first-round pick in an attempt to hold on to forward Josh Anderson. Warner was an NFL Europe passer. Leicester was managed by Claudio Ranieri, whose hiring was met with derision from the press. We thought we knew what these guys were capable of, and it was clearly wrong.
The next expansion team we see probably won't make it to the finals. History tells us they're way more likely to spend several years percolating before rising up and making their presence known. At the same time, though, we likely overestimate what we think we know, even in the era of Big Data. When projection systems throw out a 1 or 2 percent chance of a team unexpectedly succeeding or failing in advance of a season, it seems unimaginable. Those odds also aren't wrong. We're blessed to still live in interesting times.