Bill Foley and George McPhee
The Golden Knights have assembled their inaugural roster -- with a handful of trades mixed in -- and it looks as though it'll be a defense-first mentality that will guide Vegas in their first season.
For days, weeks and months now, speculation has swirled that Marc-Andre Fleury would become a member of the Vegas Golden Knights next season. Now, following Wednesday night’s announcement of the Golden Knights’ expansion draft selections, it’s official: Fleury will be a member of the maiden roster of the Vegas expansion franchise.
As far as a first face of the franchise goes — and make no mistake, Fleury is all but certain to be the face of these Golden Knights — it’s hard to go wrong with Fleury. The netminder is an instantly recognizable name to anyone who’s familiar with the game, a three-time Stanley Cup champion who is coming off of an inspiring effort in the first two rounds of the past post-season and a player with an affable, charming personality that is perfect for a burgeoning market. For the team itself, he’s a veteran whose willingness to sacrifice for the team can’t be questioned. Look no further than what he did for the Pittsburgh Penguins before, during and after the Cup run.
But if the Golden Knights are going to enjoy even a modicum of success in their inaugural campaign, Fleury is going to have to be more than the face of the franchise. He’ll have to be the on-ice backbone of a roster that is very clearly going to have to play a defense-first game to pile up the wins.
Running down the selections of Wednesday’s expansion draft, it’s clear that the Golden Knights have been built with the primary focus on defense and goaltending. That that’s the case is far from surprising, mind you, given the way the draft was set up by the league. Each team had to expose at least one goaltender who was under contract, leaving a number of talented keepers up for grabs, and with the protection methods available to the 30 franchises, there were far more teams who exposed a defenseman from their top four than those who didn’t. All told, 23 of the 30 teams used the 7-3-1 protection method, and that left the Golden Knights plenty of options on the blueline.
And with what was available, the Golden Knights built up their crease with Fleury and backups Calvin Pickard and Jean-Francois Berube. Fleury, the only netminder of the bunch with credentials as a starter, is the clear-cut No. 1 and rightfully so, while Berube, formerly a New York Islander, and Pickard, taken from Colorado Avalanche, offer some big league experience as second-stringers. Neither are true challengers for Fleury’s crease, at least not yet. Pickard has the potential to become a future starter, no doubt. He has posted a .914 SP, 2.77 GAA and three shutouts over his 86 games in the NHL. His .938 SP and 1.49 GAA at the World Championship with Team Canada was a window into what Pickard can do between the pipes with a strong defense in front of him, too.
And when it comes to the Golden Knights’ blueline, what Vegas wasn’t able to land in true top talent they’ve made up for with depth. Matter of fact, there aren’t many teams who will have as much depth from top to bottom on their blueline as the Golden Knights. Vegas plucked a bevy of defenders from the 30 franchises. From Anaheim, the Golden Knights turned the selection of Clayton Stoner, a favor to the Ducks, into the addition of promising young rearguard Shea Theodore. Vegas pried Nate Schmidt away from the Washington Capitals and plucked Trevor van Riemsdyk, a favorite of Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville, out of Chicago. They added veteran presences by nabbing now former-Tampa Bay Lightning blueliner Jason Garrison and Ottawa Senators defenseman Marc Methot, while bringing some toughness to town by picking up Alexei Emelin from the Montreal Canadiens.
That’s not all the Golden Knights did on the blueline, however. They’ve got options for how they want to structure their defense with the drafting of Colin Miller, Griffin Reinhart, Brayden McNabb, David Schlemko and Luca Sbisa.
None of this is to say the Golden Knights are bereft of offensive talent. They’re not. Selecting James Neal from the Nashville Predators, landing Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith from the Florida Panthers and taking the St. Louis Blues’ David Perron gives Vegas a handful of legitimate top-six scorers. The roster has also been rounded out nicely with Cody Eakin, William Karlsson and Erik Haula, selected from the Dallas Stars, Columbus Blue Jackets and Wild, respectively.
In addition, bringing aboard Alex Tuch, a well-regarded prospect from the Minnesota Wild, can’t be overlooked. The 21-year-old could be ready to make the jump to the NHL as early as next season, and after a solid year in the AHL, he could be ready to contribute on the bigger stage. His 18 goals and 37 points in 57 games with the Iowa Wild were impressive.
But offense, whether from the established players or young guns, is going to take a back seat to the defense, at least for a while, in Vegas, because if the Golden Knights were all-in on anything Wednesday, it was building from the back end out.
Want more in-depth features and expert analysis on the game you love? Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.