CALL it the fundamental law of expansion teams: when new franchises join North America’s closed team-sports leagues, they aren’t supposed to be very good. Cobbling together their initial rosters from the detritus incumbent clubs choose to make available, expansion teams typically need several years to develop young talent and acquire appropriate veterans. As the National Hockey League (NHL) has grown from 21 teams in 1990 to its present membership of 31, it has delivered few exceptions. Even the San Jose Sharks, a perennial contender for most of their 26-year history, won less than one-fifth of their games during their first two campaigns.

The latest addition to the NHL ranks, however, is the Las Vegas Golden Knights, who are charting a new course. Making their debut in October, they won eight of their first nine contests. Now, 32 games into their inaugural season, they remain well ahead of the typical expansion team′s path. Their record of 21-9-2—the NHL counts overtime victories as wins, but overtime losses separately—places them atop the eight-team Pacific Division, and ranks them among the top five clubs in the entire league. This is a far cry from the 1991-92 Sharks, who kicked off their franchise history with a measly 17 wins in 80 games. In a league in which no previous expansion team has posted a winning record in its opening season, Las Vegas’s results so far challenge the received wisdom about the potential of such a squad.

The usual obstacle facing new franchises is a dearth of available talent. The Golden Knights’ ability to build a competitive roster is partly a testament to their management’s savvy negotiation of the expansion draft, and partly the result of an unusually friendly player selection process. The latter reason is no accident. The NHL has no plans to halt its expansion at the awkward size of 31 teams, which makes scheduling complicated. And the more success Las Vegas enjoys immediately, the more attractive the future 32nd franchise will be to potential suitors. There is already stiff competition for the slot: the contenders include Quebec City, which hosted an NHL team until the franchise moved to Colorado in 1995; Seattle, where over $500m has been committed to renovating Key Arena; and Houston, America’s fourth-biggest television market. For a potential owner, the economics of landing an expansion franchise look much better if they don’t involve suffering through years of on-ice futility.

Unlike the many expansion franchises of the 1990s that debuted in pairs, Las Vegas did not have to compete with another newbie for the scrap heap’s best pickings. The expansion draft’s rules allowed George McPhee, Las Vegas’s general manager, to select one unprotected player from each of the existing NHL teams. It wasn’t exactly fantasy hockey, as Mr McPhee was denied access to hundreds of the league’s best players. However, the rules ensured that available players weren’t quite rejects, either. Mr McPhee did not make his selections with the goal of raising the price of a hypothetical 32nd franchise; instead, his choices largely prioritised the club’s long-term health at the expense of a borderline playoff run in 2018. Nonetheless, as it turned out, Las Vegas has wound up with the best of both worlds: the team is both a surprise contender this season, and has amassed a passel of blue-chip prospects around whom Mr McPhee can build future playoff campaigns.

Even with relatively friendly draft rules, nobody thought this would be a first-place club: its inaugural roster only appeared stronger than about one-third of NHL teams. And on paper, the lineup has gotten even weaker since the season started. Marc-Andre Fleury, the team’s goaltender and one of its few members with a long history of success in the NHL, suffered a concussion in his fourth game and returned only last week. The netminding duo that replaced him, Oscar Dansk and Malcolm Subban, quickly followed Mr Fleury on to the injured list, forcing Gerard Gallant, the Golden Knights’ coach, to give 13 starts to his fourth-string goalie, Maxim Lagace. Moreover, the Russian star Vadim Shipachyov, whose performance with St. Petersburg of the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) suggested he could emerge as a force in the more competitive NHL, hasn’t contributed at all. After signing a two-year, $9m contract, he failed to make the Knights out of training camp, managed a mere 32 minutes of ice time, and has already “retired” from the NHL in order to return to Russia.

Yet somehow, this battle-scarred group of surplus players has outscored 28 NHL teams. And even with a goalkeeping corps patched together from the waiver wire, they have been better than half the league at keeping the puck out of their own net. Their current record probably overstates their strength: they’ve faced a relatively easy schedule and have enjoyed a bit of good fortune in overtime. But the Simple Rating System (SRS) metric, which takes into account goal differential and quality of opposition, still ranks them ninth in the NHL, and a hair out of second place in their division.

The Golden Knights have achieved their unprecedented early-season success thanks to an unlikely committee of contributors. Jon Marchessault, a 27-year-old top-line center drafted from the Florida Panthers, has built on a career-best showing last season to lead his new team with 29 points (11 goals and 18 assists). His linemate, the 25-year-old winger William Karlsson, has thrived in his new higher-profile role, tallying more points already this season than he did across 81 games for the Columbus Blue Jackets last year. Mr Subban, a once-touted goalkeeping prospect who failed to excel with the Boston Bruins, who selected him in the first round of the 2012 entry draft but let him go on waivers in October, has allowed a stingy 2.3 goals per game. His performance while keeping the net warm for Mr Fleury hints that one of Mr McPhee’s best acquisitions came long after the expansion draft.

The 8-1 record with which the Knights opened the season, along with the individual performances that contributed, could be written off as a freak run of luck better suited to a Vegas casino. But 21 wins in 32 games is something else entirely. This team is still nearly as unlikely to finish in first place as Mr Karlsson is to conclude the season with his current shooting percentage of 22.7%, more than the double the league average. Yet with more than two months of hockey in the books, it’s increasingly safe to say that the Golden Knights will post the first-ever winning season from an NHL expansion team. Of the nearly 500 team-seasons since 2000 (excluding the lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign), 43 clubs have won at least 21 of their first 32 contests. Every single one of them not only finished the season above .500, but also advanced to the postseason. However long their inaugural season lasts, Las Vegas has demonstrated that expansion teams can do more than just lose. Prospective bidders for a 32nd NHL team have surely taken note, and with every Golden Knights win, the price of that franchise goes up.