By Jeremy Perrigo
Less than three hundred miles and a five hour drive separates Las Vegas, Nevada and Glendale, Arizona. The Vegas Golden Knights will begin play in the 2017-2018 season in the pacific division as the NHL’s newest franchise, and they will be looking to make a strong first impression, and potentially create a long-term rivalry in the process.
The pacific is already home to Californian rivals San Jose, Los Angeles and Anaheim. North of the border there is the famous “battle of Alberta” with division rivals Calgary and Edmonton.
Only two teams in the division are lacking a true rival. They are Vancouver and Arizona.
While Vancouver is an outsider to the rivalry between the Flames and Oilers, there is no love lost between the Canadian foes, who have had memorable duels in the past including a line brawl featuring the Canucks and Flames in 2014.
Also, with the potential for an NHL franchise in Seattle in the coming years, it would give Vancouver a viable opponent in their backyard, right across the border.
The Arizona Coyotes moved from Winnipeg in 1996 where they played nearly 7 seasons in Phoenix until moving to the suburbial city of Glendale in 2003.
It is no secret that in recent years there has been tension between the Arizona Coyotes organization and the local government in Glendale.
In an article from March, in the Arizona Republic, the conflict came to a front when government officials blasted the Coyotes and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman for mismanaging the team.
Former Mayor of Glendale Elaine Scruggs, who was in office from 1993-2013, blames the Coyotes for the lack of success of the team,
“In their minds, the Coyotes' lack of success is Glendale's fault. Disregard the fact that the team ranks last in the NHL in hockey spending, continually trades away top talent while it annually 'builds for the future,' and spends next to nothing to market the team,” Scruggs went on to state, “I will say what they will not: the Coyotes position at the bottom of the standings is a leadership problem, not a location problem.”
There is no question that marketing is a huge part of making a team successful, especially in non-traditional hockey markets such as Arizona. With a team that has been around for twenty years, only now can young adults begin to say that they have been life-long Coyotes fans.
This is why the addition of the Las Vegas Golden Knights to the league may be one of the best things to happen to an Arizona Coyotes franchise that has been struggling to grow local support.
It happens all across the world, in all sports, and across every continent. Rivalries fuel support for teams that is felt down to the very core of their fanbase.
If it is true that the problems the Coyotes face are a result of poor marketing and not poor location, then a rivalry with a neighboring franchise could be exactly what the organization is looking for as a way to get fans into seats.
The league just recently released full-season schedules for all 31 NHL franchises for the 2017-2018 season. It appears that some thought has already been put into this potential rivalry between the Coyotes and Golden Knights.
Arizona is set to host its home-opener Saturday, October 7th, against Vegas before traveling to Sin City to play the first ever regular season NHL hockey game at T-Mobile Arena against the Golden Knights on October 10th.
While the season-opening schedules are poised to facilitate a new rivalry between Vegas and Arizona, there are other factors that will also play into how intense the relationship between the two franchises becomes.
Undoubtedly the most anticipated selection of the Golden Knights expansion draft was that of goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury from the Pittsburgh Penguins. Fleury, barring, any major offseason trades, will likely be the starting goaltender for Vegas in the fall.
The Penguins’ former netminder has been at the forefront of news in the hockey world for months as he competed with rookie goaltender Matt Murray for the number one spot in the Pittsburgh crease.
After inevitably losing that battle and agreeing to waive his no-trade clause so that the Penguins would be able to leave him unprotected in the expansion draft, Fleury, who had a save percentage of .909 and goals against average of 3.02 during the regular season, could potentially have a bounce-back season once taking the spotlight in Vegas.
Along with other veteran additions such as James Neal from the Nashville Predators and David Perron from the St. Louis Blues, Vegas is in a position to not only cultivate a team for the future, but also be competitive as soon as the start of next season.
Arizona has been making a splash in the postseason as well. Last week the Coyotes notified longtime player and captain Shane Doan that the team would not be offering him a new contract.
Doan joined the franchise in 1995 and was the only current player in the organization to have still been with the team since it was located in Winnipeg.
The Coyotes also parted with longtime coach Dave Tippett, who has been the bench boss in Glendale since 2009.
Arizona also shipped off franchise goaltender Mike Smith to Calgary largely in a move to free the team of Smith’s annual $5.667 million cap hit. The Coyotes received goaltender Chad Johnson as part of the deal, but with Johnson set to be an unrestricted free agent this year, it is not likely Arizona gets him back for the fall.
The Coyotes gave an indication of what direction they are heading in Friday when they acquired defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson from the Chicago Blackhawks in exchange for defenseman Connor Murphy and center Laurent Dauphin.
Later in the day Arizona participated in another deal for New York Rangers’ backup Antti Raanta and center Derek Stepan prior to NHL draft in exchange for Anthony DeAngelo and the Coyotes 7th overall pick.
These additions, along with the already-present young talent of Max Domi, Anthony Duclair, Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Jakob Chychrun, will be part of the Coyotes foundation for the future.
With the Coyotes in the midst of a rebuild at the same time Vegas is forming its inaugural team, all signs point to the potential for these two franchises to grow into a heated rivalry, unseen before in market that has a limited hockey history.
Keep an eye on matchups between these two franchises as the 2017-2018 kicks off, history will be made in this desert rivalry.