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Vegas envy: Is Tampa Bay ready for a Vegas’ birth-to-best story?

What in the name of the 0-26 Bucs is going on here?

The breathtaking Vegas Golden Knights are the greatest expansion team in professional sports history. They are the best (or worst) thing to ever happen to our games, having won 51 times during the regular season. Now, having roared through the playoffs, they're poised to win a Stanley Cup in their inaugural season.

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Only the Washington Capitals, who have beaten their heads against the boards for decades to get to get hold of the Stanley Cup, stand between the pride of Sin City and perhaps the end of civilization as we know it. Yes, the universe is constantly expanding, but a little-known fact is that the universe went 27-51-5 in its first season and failed to make the playoffs.

Worst to first is one thing. But birth to best?

The competitive equilibrium, the one that says pain and suffering are part of expansion life, is out of whack. Before the season, Las Vegas sports books listed their sole pro home team as a 500-to-1 shot to win the Cup. The Golden Knights have become the golden ticket. If this happened on the floor of a Las Vegas casino, the eye in the sky would dispatch security to the table.

Something isn't quite right here.

Ask Mark Cotney, a defensive back on the original Bucs, who lost their first 26 games after joining the NFL in 1976. That's pain and suffering.

"They are starting off kind of spoiled," Cotney said of Vegas. "What we went through, nobody should have to go through that. … But should you be able to put a team together and go out and win a championship? You ought to go through something, right? If I was some of the more veteran hockey teams, sitting at home, I'd be thinking, 'How the hell does this happen?' "

And how can this possibly sit well with Capitals fans, whose team was a historically bad 8-67-5 in its inaugural 1974-75 season? The New York Islanders won just 12 games their first season. The Ottawa Senators won 10 games. Fourteen of the teams that preceded Vegas into the NHL have never lifted the Cup. The Toronto Maple Leafs, part of the league's "Original Six," haven't won the Cup — or been to the final — since 1967.

The NFL's Detroit Lions haven't won a championship since 1957. What about Cleveland's Browns, who haven't captured a title since 1964, or Cleveland's Indians, who haven't won a World Series in 70 years? The Red Sox went 86 years between world titles. The Cubs waited 108 years. From that to Viva Las Vegas.

Baseball's 1962 expansion Mets lost 120 games.

And there's Tampa Bay, land of expansion, initially paved with haplessness. The Bucs made the playoffs in their fourth season but went through historic waves of awful, before and after, until winning a Super Bowl in the 2002 season. The Lightning, born in 1992-93, lost 54 games its first season but won the Cup in 2004, its 12th season. The Rays, who began in 1998, lost 99 games their first year and took 10 years to make the playoffs and World Series.

"We didn't have a chance," said Brian Bradley, who was expansion drafted onto the original Lightning. "Look at Phoenix and Buffalo (both of which have never won the Cup). They've been in the league for years. How does their fan base feel right now? Not too good, I bet. How can a first-year team go to the playoffs and win the Cup in the first year? What about Toronto? It hasn't won the Cup in 51 years. What about St. Louis? It's never won a Cup. It's great for Vegas, but it's kind of diabolical, too. You know?"

Not everyone sees pure evil in Vegas winning big.

"Yes, I do think it's great for our league," Lightning GM Steve Yzerman said. "Las Vegas was awarded a franchise. It paid a significant franchise fee to enter the league. In our league, in expansion, it's tough in some of the markets, if that team doesn't have a chance for a few years, to grow that market. The rest of the league, it's tough on us because we're losing good players, but I think (commissioner) Gary Bettman did the right thing. We wanted to make this team competitive. I don't think anybody … knew they were going to be this competitive. I mean, they're really good."

Revisionist history holds that Vegas' shock-the-world rocket sled to the pinnacle of hockey was as certain as Vegas headliner Celine Dion holding the high note. The truth is that no one saw the Golden Knights coming. Most people thought they'd lose 50 games or more. But with hindsight, we can see the now-open secrets to Vegas' success.

Ask Phil Esposito, founder and original architect of the Lightning. Esposito points out that Lightning ownership paid $50 million for the franchise. Then there was Vegas.

Pain and suffering?

"Vegas' pain and suffering was paying $500 million for the team," Esposito said.

The NHL, looking for a sure thing in Vegas, stacked the deck. That's what half a billion gets you. The revised rules for the expansion draft were Vegas friendly. And Vegas was the only team drafting. The Lightning was paired with Ottawa in expansion, the Bucs expanded with Seattle, and the Rays went in with Arizona.

Vegas chose from a more talented pool of available exposed players. The rules allowed existing teams to protect only seven forwards, three defensemen and a single goaltender or a goaltender and eight players regardless of position. Those also will be the rules when Seattle enters the NHL in 2020. Franchise fee: $650 million.

Compare all that with the Lightning's 1992 expansion draft, when teams could protect two goaltenders as well as 14 position players. It had ragtag written all over it. Bradley would become a star for Tampa Bay. A lot of other picked players would not.

"We got the fifth and sixth defensemen," Esposito said. "We got the 12th and 13th forward, we got the third and fourth goaltender. But (Vegas) paid $500 million, and we paid $50 million. You get what you pay for in life."

Or what the other owners let you have. That was the experience for Hall of Fame NFL executive Ron Wolf, who as Bucs director of operations in 1976 saw the league do little heavy lifting in the name of expansion franchises.

There was the Bucs' first draft pick: future Hall of Famer Lee Roy Selmon. But in the expansion draft, teams hoarded their talent, and the Bucs were left with scraps. They had a few hits (Cotney, who came over from Houston, played eight seasons for the Bucs), but a lot of sure misses.

"The league did not bend over backward to help you," Wolf said, laughing.

The Rays had a similar experience. Baseball took the money but didn't ease the pain.

"The first team we put on the field, the goal was not to lose a hundred games," said Chuck LaMar, their first general manager. The Rays showed them, losing 99.

By far the biggest thing Vegas had going for it was the NHL salary cap, which was installed after the 2004-05 lockout. The cap forced teams into tough choices and left the Knights free to play the field as teams tried to manage payrolls. Vegas GM George McPhee — who once upon a time was the architect of the Capitals — did what was needed in dealing with the other teams. He fleeced them.

When two-time defending Cup champion Pittsburgh decided that its future lay with goaltender Matt Murray, Vegas drafted the exposed Marc-Andre Fleury, who won three Cups with the Penguins, the last two as Murray's backup. Fleury has a 1.68 goals-against average and .947 save percentage this postseason and will likely win the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP if Vegas is victorious.

Vegas leveraged other teams' cap woes. It took advantage of teams trying to protect players or dump salaries, giving Vegas draft picks if it took certain players. For the Lightning's part, Yzerman unloaded defenseman Jason Garrison and his $4.5 million salary on Vegas but sent a prospect and draft picks to sweeten the pot.

Vegas took injured, highly paid wing David Clarkson off Columbus' hands in exchange for draft picks and selecting Columbus third-line center William Karlsson in the expansion draft. Clarkson was placed on long-term injured reserve. Karlsson, who had never scored more than nine goals in an NHL season, centers Vegas' top line, had 43 goals during the regular season, and has six goals and 13 points in the playoffs.

Vegas made an expansion-draft deal with the Panthers and took talented but pricey Reilly Smith off their hands. As part of that deal, the Knights drafted former Lightning player and Florida 30-goal scorer Jonathan Marchessault, who had 27 goals for Vegas and has starred in the playoffs, with eight goals and 18 points. Smith has been great, too.

On and on it goes, maybe all the way to the Cup.

Did we mention that Vegas was given a second-round pick to take Fleury?

Oh, the humanity.

Of course, it has taken more than that for Vegas to get to the Cup final. Many of its players are having career years. McPhee pushed the right buttons, as has Vegas coach and former Lightning player Gerard Gallant. The Knights play an up-tempo game, as riveting as their arena pregame shows. Hey, it's Vegas.

"They put together a good, speedy team," said NBC analyst Mike Milbury. "It can check. They go through the lineup. They use everybody. They drafted with some consistency. I don't know if they thought they were going to get this out of guys like Fleury and Karlsson, but the league gave them a better opportunity than any expansion team before. They've made the most of it."

People keep waiting for the upstarts to get theirs. Maybe it will happen in the Cup final, or next season, or when Fleury, 33, wakes up one morning and some of his body parts don't. Vegas just might suffer through its expansion season in a few years. Delayed fuse. Maybe.

"I always kind of thought the going uphill kind of made it more special," said Cotney, original Buc. "The journey is the thing. Who would have thought after 0-26 we'd come to within a few points of a Super Bowl in '79? I guess it makes me appreciate these Vegas hockey guys. But the first year? You got nowhere to go but downhill. But are they really going to win this thing?"

All bets are off.

Contact Martin Fennelly at [email protected] or (813) 731-8029. Follow @mjfennelly.

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