The Golden Knights will likely struggle in year 1. But they’re set up well to win the battle for popularity, led by lovable Marc-Andre Fleury and local Vegas citizen Deryk Engelland.
LAS VEGAS – “I’m not looking to be the face of much,” said Marc-Andre Fleury, staring down a hornet’s nest of excited reporters. “I just want to come and play hockey.”
It was the most perfectly ironic statement imaginable on expansion draft night at T-Mobile Arena, where the Golden Knights revealed their 30 player selections. Fleury said it with his big, shiny smile, flashing the humility and kindness that made him a fan favorite over 13 seasons tending goal for the Pittsburgh Penguins. It was exactly the kind of moment befitting the face of a new franchise. Sorry, Marc-Andre, but everybody loves you, buddy. You’re the most liked and gushed about dressing room teammate of your generation. And it’s pretty clear the Golden Knights have pegged you as their poster boy.
Most of Vegas’ roster unveilings Wednesday night were anticlimactic. First off, almost all of them were leaked before the festivities began. Secondly, the specific players being named mostly underwhelmed. General manager George McPhee made oodles of side deals on the promise he’d steer away from talented exposed players such Matt Dumba in Minnesota or Sami Vatanen in Anaheim. By the end of the night, the Golden Knights had announced 11 acquired draft picks, including two additional selections in the top 15 of Friday’s draft, giving them three slots in the first half of the first round. It’s no wonder McPhee had to hop on a red-eye to Chicago immediately after the NHL Awards show. He has a lot of work to do.
It’s clear a team built around the likes of Connor Brickley and Clayton Stoner and Chris Thorburn is a team built to struggle and veer Vegas toward lottery selections in years to come. Few teams generate more excitement and optimism than the Toronto Maple Leafs and Edmonton Oilers right now, and they’ve built their ascending franchises on No. 1 overall picks. So did the twice defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins and the previous team to hoist the chalice, the Chicago Blackhawks. So Vegas likely wants to get bad to get good, and it can also develop a few high-end prospects it just secured in defenseman Shea Theodore and right winger Alex Tuch, not to mention blossoming goal scorer Jonathan Marchessault.
Still, some veterans have to do the tough job of becoming the franchise’s first ambassadors, entertaining the new fan base and keeping the star seats warm until the Golden Knights draft their next-generation stars.
Fleury is the main man for that job. He remains a well-above-average netminder. Matt Murray was a stud in the second half of the playoffs, but the Pens never would’ve escaped the first two rounds without ‘Flower.’
“I’ve realized I’ve been a around for a while now, and I’m not the young guy coming in anymore,” Fleury said. “I’ve been fortunate enough to play on great teams in a great organization, and I’ve had a lot of great teammates that taught me well. If I can share a little bit about my experience, my playoff experience, hopefully I can help out my teammates.”
Fleury has obviously had a whirlwind June, practically still smelling of champagne after just winning the Cup, but he saw Vegas coming. He expressed endless gratitude toward the Pens, who drafted him first overall in 2003, but also acknowledged it was time to move on. And as the goalie market dried up this off-season, with several teams securing new starters, it only made sense for Fleury to do some homework on Sin City.
“I was reading a lot about what was happening with the team, with the staff, with the organization,” Fleury said. “From (owner Bill) Foley down to Mr. McPhee, Gerard (Gallant) as a coach, they all seem like great people. My wife’s in town, so for a few days we’ll be out shopping looking around to see where we should go.”
Fleury’s wife Veronique is with him, and he won’t be emotionally alone in the dressing room either when training camp opens. He has multiple former Penguins teammates joining him in Vegas: James Neal, David Perron, Deryk Engelland and Thorburn. And Engelland will play a crucial role for the Knights. Not only is he quite close with Fleury, who said his old teammates will help his transition – but Engelland calls Las Vegas home. He met his wife Melissa here when he played for the ECHL’s Las Vegas Wranglers. He was one of the only unrestricted free agents the Golden Knights signed during their exclusive negotiating window leading up to the expansion draft.
“Playing at home is huge,” Engelland said. “It was a big key. Them showing interest in wanting me here and taking me in the expansion draft when they could’ve passed and waited until free agency to try and sign me showed a lot. So it was a fairly easy decision on my part, and I’m excited for it.”
Engelland is a crucial edition because he won’t just serve as a rugged protector on the ice. He’ll do the same off the ice as the ultimate apologist for Vegas as a hockey market. He pointed out Wednesday that the Wranglers were regularly among the ECHL attendance leaders when he played there. He sees that same enthusiasm returning for Golden Knights fever now.
“I think it’ll be great,” Engelland said. “From the ticket drive to the hype around town, everywhere you go, you see Knights stuff everywhere. Hats, shirts, everything. Talking to people around the rink and anywhere, they’re just excited for a team, and I think it’ll go really well.”
The Golden Knights’ roster likely won’t consist of 23 players solely from the 30-man group announced Wednesday, as plenty of trades could happen before or during Friday’s draft and throughout the off-season. It’s a reasonable assumption that the four players who showed up wearing Golden Knights sweaters at the Awards, however, are safe. In addition to Fleury and Engelland, Los Angeles Kings import Brayden McNabb was the first player announced in the flesh. Jason Garrison, arriving from Tampa Bay, will bring veteran leadership of his own. He beamed at the podium Wednesday and hopes he’s a Golden Knight for more than couple days.
“If there’s one thing I’ve known it’s that nothing is really assured,” he said. “I’m not too sure. I would hope to.”
McNabb expressed unbridled optimism upon seeing the roster unveiled. Garrison, Engelland and Fleury said the same thing. What else would they say? The want to believe they can compete in Year 1 and build excitement for the fans. And that’s also why they were brought to the dessert. This team needs champions before championships, and it has its first faces, especially in Fleury and Engelland.
“I always like to get out there,” Fleury said. “Especially here. Maybe hockey’s not the most known sport, but maybe I can help grow the game here in Vegas.”