Sharks

The original Shark who's helping expansion Golden Knights' stunning success

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USATSI

The original Shark who's helping expansion Golden Knights' stunning success

When he first joined the San Jose Sharks in 1991, Kelly Kisio said it was immediately apparent things would be different while playing for an expansion franchise.

"Probably when I walked in the Cow Palace," Kisio said with a laugh. "First time walking in there and going, 'oh my.'"

When Kisio came to the Sharks, what is now SAP Center was under construction, and the on-ice product was also a work in progress. San Jose lost 129 of its first 164 games, but the man who scored the team's first game-winning goal only has fond memories of his time there. 

"As you can tell by our record, we were not very good, but the fans treated us like gold," Kisio said. "Every city we went to, there was always lots of teal in the stands and people followed us. They always gave us the benefit of the doubt. As long as we worked hard, they were fine with it."

Over a quarter of a century after he first came to San Jose, Kisio finds himself with another expansion team with rabid support, albeit one that is very good. He's now a pro scout for the Western Conference-leading Vegas Golden Knights, who will make their first regular season trip to SAP Center on Thursday. 

In the club's inaugural season, the Golden Knights have already set a records for wins by an expansion franchise (35), with a 10-point lead over the second-place Sharks in the Pacific Division.

In one season, Vegas has won more games than San Jose did in its first two (28).

"Let me tell ya, it's a lot better now than the Shark days," Kisio noted with a laugh.

Kisio joined the Golden Knights in Sept. 2016, over a year before the team played any games. After ending his playing days with the Calgary Flames, he spent the next two decades of his post-playing career in the city. 

He first worked as a Flames scout for three seasons, then in a variety of roles with the Western Hockey League's (WHL) Calgary Hitmen for the next 18. The Hitmen won two WHL championships in Kisio's tenure, and sent numerous players to the NHL, including Sharks goaltender Martin Jones. 

The Golden Knights came calling, but Kisio said he was left with a tough decision. 

"It was very difficult, but after awhile you get stale," he said. "It didn't look like things were going to move on for me with the Flames...so I had to decide if I wanted to stay in junior or like you say, take a chance with the Vegas Golden Knights. It took me a few days for sure to decide, but I knew the guys that were running the operation very well." 

Kisio played alongside Vegas general manager George McPhee in the NHL, against assistant general manager Kelly McCrimmon in junior, and he knew director of player personnel Vaughn Karpan from scouting. That familiarity made his decision to join Vegas easier, he said.

As a pro scout with the team, Kisio now primarily covers their Pacific Division rivals. He, and the rest of the scouting department, have played a vital role in the team's initial success.

They were tasked with not only finding good players, but ones that would be available in last June's expansion draft. 

The 30 other teams protected seven forwards, three defensemen, and a goaltender, or eight skaters and a goaltender. The Golden Knights, then, were able to select one player from each team that was left unprotected, and had to draft at least 14 forwards, nine defensemen, and three goalies. 

With those rules in mind, Kisio and the Golden Knights staff set out to identify players that would be available for selection. 

"We basically hit on the head on most every team, and we were pretty happy with that." Kisio said. "When you do that, the process becomes a little easier because you basically knew who was gonna be available and which guy you were gonna get." 

Kisio said McPhee, McCrimmon, and Vaughn directed the scouting department to find players who were strong skaters, had a high hockey IQ, and would benefit from a chance in a bigger role. That doesn't mean they saw this success coming. 

"If you told me that [28-goal-scorer William Karlsson] would have as many goals as he does, I don't think anybody would tell you that," Kisio said. "They'd be lying if they knew that was going to happen, or how well some of the other guys are doing."

He said the front office expected Vegas to "be competitive in most every game," but the Golden Knights have been more than competitive. With 29 games to go, Vegas is just a point behind the Tampa Bay Lightning in the President's Trophy race, and entered Thursday on just under a 104-point pace, according to HockeyViz's projections. 

It's all a far cry from Kisio's days at the Cow Palace. Although the success is unexpected and largely unprecedented, he said it would not have happened without McPhee, McCimmon, and Karpan's direction.

"All I did was go out and watch players give them my two cents worth, as all our guys did, and see where it went from there."

Why the Stanley Cup-bound Golden Knights don't deserve your ire

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AP

Why the Stanley Cup-bound Golden Knights don't deserve your ire

In case you haven’t heard, the Vegas Golden Knights are headed to the Stanley Cup Final. It is, assuredly, just like we all predicted.

Exactly two weeks after they ended the Sharks’ season in the second round, the expansion club was at it again on Sunday. Ryan Reaves tipped Luca Sbisa’s point shot for the eventual game-winning goal, adding two more unlikely heroes to a seemingly endless, and increasingly absurd, line of them as the Golden Knights eliminated the Winnipeg Jets.

San Jose is no longer the latest footnote in Vegas’ storybook season, but any remaining hesitation from Sharks fans to come to terms with the story of the season is understandable. After all, no team won more playoff games against the Golden Knights through three rounds, and the six-game, second-round series seemed like the start of a legitimate rivalry.

Just as straightforward is the fact that San Jose had a polar-opposite expansion experience. The Sharks got to pick mostly from the dregs of the then-Minnesota North Stars, and then from a much smaller pool of players in a league that had 10 fewer teams at the time. Even considering that many of the Golden Knights’ best players were acquired in trades around the Expansion Draft and/or selected under the condition Vegas didn’t select someone else, the club was in a better position than any new team in league history.

Frankly, it should sting a bit seeing an expansion team have unprecedented success a quarter-century after the Cow Palace hosted one of the worst teams in NHL history, as well as just two years after San Jose made its first-ever appearance in the Final following years of heartbreak. But any resentment can wait until next year, as Vegas doesn’t deserve your ire in its inaugural season.

The Golden Knights’ inaugural season is kind of story transcends hockey, a hyper-regional sport followed by fans who (mostly) don’t continue to watch the playoffs once their team is eliminated. Regardless of who advances out of the East, the possibility a team that existed pretty much in name exactly a year ago having a chance to engrave its name on the bleepin’ Stanley Cup is going to give the league, and the sport, some overdue national attention.

Unless you’re in the #PleaseLikeMySport crowd, this is undoubtedly a good thing. The Stanley Cup Final is going to attract plenty of viewers asking “Is this really happening?” without having watched much, if any, hockey previously. If a few of them decide to stick around? Even better.

Plus, it’s not like a parade down the Strip makes one in San Jose any less likely in the future. Far from it, in fact. The Golden Knights would be the first team from outside of Chicago, Los Angeles, and Pittsburgh to win a Stanley Cup since 2011, and the first first-time champion since the Kings in 2012.

Hockey fans love to trumpet the NHL’s parity, and if the league is truly one Where Any Team Can Win And Anything Can Happen, new teams are certainly welcome on the Stanley Cup. Even the league’s newest.

More than any year, it’s best to take the long view on this postseason, and to ultimately embrace the absurdity of it all. Sharks fans can be as frustrated as they want while the Golden Knights play for a championship and San Jose is in offseason mode.

Just save that until this ridiculous ride comes to an end.

Stanley on the Strip? Expansion Vegas Golden Knights headed to Cup Final

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USATSI

Stanley on the Strip? Expansion Vegas Golden Knights headed to Cup Final

WINNIPEG, Manitoba -- Ryan Reaves scored the winning goal, Marc-Andre Fleury made 31 saves and the Vegas Golden Knights pushed their remarkable expansion season into the Stanley Cup Final, beating the Winnipeg Jets 2-1 on Sunday in Game 5 of the Western Conference final.

Alex Tuch also scored for the Knights. They lost Game 1 in Winnipeg before winning four straight to become the first expansion team since the 1968 St. Louis Blues - when the six initial expansion teams were put alone in the West - to get to the final.

Vegas will meet the Tampa Bay Lightning or the Washington Capitals in the final. Tampa Bay leads the Eastern Conference final 3-2, with Game 6 set for Monday night in Washington.

Josh Morrissey scored for the Jets, and Connor Hellebuyck made 30 saves.

Reaves, the bruising Winnipeg native acquired from the Pittsburgh Penguins before to the trade deadline in February, snapped a 1-1 tie with 6:39 left in the second period when he tipped Luca Sbisa's point shot past Hellebuyck for his first goal of the playoffs.

Winnipeg got a power play early in the third, but couldn't muster much of anything. The Knights smothered much of the Jets' attack for the next 10 minutes, with Hellebuyck having to come up with big stops on William Karlsson and Eric Haula to keep his team within one.

The Jets pressed with under 4 minutes to go, with Fleury stopping captain Blake Wheeler on the doorstep, but it wasn't nearly enough as the Knights closed out their third straight series on the road.

The Jets beat the Knights 4-2 in Game 1, but Vegas snatched home ice with a 3-1 victory in Game 2 before picking up 4-2 and 3-2 wins at T-Mobile Arena.

The Knights, whose jaw-dropping inaugural 109-point campaign included a Pacific Division crown, swept the Los Angeles Kings in the first round, and knocked out the San Jose Sharks in six games.

The Jets had the NHL's second-best record with 114 points in the regular season. They advanced to the first conference final in city's history with a five-game victory over the Minnesota Wild in the opening round before topping the Presidents' Trophy-winning Nashville Predators in Game 7 on the road.

The usual raucous, white-clad crowd at Bell MTS Place - not to mention the thousands of fans outside the arena attending a street party on a sun-drenched spring afternoon - were silenced just 5:11 into Game 5 when Tuch jumped on Morrissey's turnover and fired his sixth past Hellebuyck.

The Jets were tentative to start and it got worse after the opener as Vegas dominated the next couple of shifts, forcing some good saves from Hellebuyck before Winnipeg got its feet moving.

After being outshot 7-1 in the first 7 minutes, the Jets finally pushed back and turned the tide with the next nine attempts on goal, culminating with Morrissey making amends for his early gaffe with 2:46 left in the period.

Bryan Little won a faceoff in the offensive zone straight back to second-year defenseman, who blasted his first career playoff goal past Fleury's glove.

One of Winnipeg's downfalls in the series through four games was an inability to maintain momentum. The Knights scored within 1:28 of a Jets' goal in each of the first four games - a crushing 12 seconds after Winnipeg tied Game 3, and an equally gut-wrenching 43 seconds after the Jets knotted Game 4 - but they managed to take the game to the locker rooms tied 1-1.

Both teams had chances in the second period before Reaves made it 2-1, with Jets center Mathieu Perrault just missing on a pass from Little that had too much speed.

Right after Reaves scored the second playoff goal of his career - and first since 2015 with St. Louis - Winnipeg's Nikolaj Ehlers rang a shot off the post on Fleury.

NOTES: The Jets were an NHL-best 32-7-2 at home in the regular season, but were a pedestrian 5-4 in the playoffs, including losses in four of their last five post-season outings. Winnipeg had won a combined 13 straight at home before dropping a 2-1 decision in Game 4 against Nashville. ... With his team facing elimination, Jets coach Paul Maurice inserted defensemen Dmitry Kulikov and Joe Morrow in the lineup for Toby Enstrom and Ben Chiarot. Kulikov hadn't played since injuring his back on March 8, while Morrow last suited up April 20 in Game 5 of the Minnesota series.