When the Las Vegas Golden Knights began their first season in the National Hockey League in October, they were a team of unproven castoffs with a corny name, playing a game on ice in the desert.
Now, eight months later, they are in the Stanley Cup finals, the first expansion team in any of North America’s four major sports to make it to the championship round in its debut season.* The Golden Knights accomplished this by bonding as a team, harnessing the motivation of rejection, and most significantly, looking past superficial statistics like points and ice time to find unheralded players with hidden reserves of ability.
To assemble the team last June, the Knights used an expansion draft, a mechanism for stocking rosters which permitted general manager George McPhee to pluck one player from each of the league’s 30 incumbent teams. Teams were allowed to protect eight of their players from the draft, and McPhee shrewdly arranged side trades that gave him additional players or future draft picks in exchange for picking, or not picking, certain players.
In the end, McPhee wound up with a roster that had almost no stars—the exception was the Pittsburgh Penguin’s out-of-favor (and expensive) goalie, Marc-Andre Fleury—but was deep on talented players undervalued by their previous teams. Forward William Karlsson, for example, was buried deep on the bench playing for the Columbus Blue Jackets, where he scored six goals last season. As a starter for the Knights this season, he scored 44 goals, 17 more than Columbus’s high scorer.
While the lessons of sports management don’t always map perfectly to the contemporary office, the Knights are proving the value of looking past the obvious markers of professional success, like experience and credentials, to unearth talent. Massive corporations and small startups alike are striving to find better ways to recruit and hire employees who not only fit the job description, but can fit into the corporate culture and thrive. Employers are increasingly discounting resumes and employee referrals—both of which can introduce bias into the hiring process—and instead are relying on assessments, work samples, and artificial intelligence to help source the right workers.
While fans of old-line NHL teams like the Toronto Maple Leafs (last Stanley Cup appearance: 1967) may grumble that the expansion draft was rigged to unfairly benefit Vegas, virtually every player on the Knights’ roster was left unprotected by another team that didn’t appreciate what they had. Just as companies that rely on traditional metrics and channels to fill openings may find themselves getting passed by more diverse and enterprising competitors, the rest of the NHL has been left behind by the Knights.
*Footnote: In 1968, the expansion St. Louis Blues also made it to the Stanley Cup Finals in their first season, but this comes with an important caveat. After decades of being a six-team league, the NHL added six new franchises for the 1967-68 season, and placed them all in one division, with the winner facing the best of the original six teams. Since an expansion team was guaranteed a finals appearance, it doesn’t really count for these purposes.