The Vegas Golden Knights played the long game in constructing the base of their first very NHL roster.
Knights general manager George McPhee went heavy on defenders and short on high-end help in selecting 30 players at the first NHL expansion draft in 17 years. Marc-Andre Fleury and James Neal were among the few high profile picks, which were revealed Wednesday evening during the NHL awards show in Las Vegas.
“Obviously, we’ve got great fans already, having sold out the season tickets and the reception we had tonight here,” Fleury said after he walked out on stage in a Golden Knights jersey. “I’ll give it everything I’ve got to win some games and try to get into the community to meet people and spread the word about the Golden Knights.”
Fleury was joined by the likes of Jonathan Marchessault, Marc Methot, Trevor van Riemsdyk, and former Edmonton Oilers winger David Perron.
After meeting with the board of governors earlier in the day, Knights chairman and CEO Bill Foley said he was already “very proud” of the roster assembled by McPhee.
“I believe we’ve put together a great team from the net out,” Foley said. “I believe fans are really going to like the team, and the trades and the draft picks and the prospects that we have. It’s not just a player per team. In many cases, it might have been two players a team. It might have been an upgraded draft pick plus a player, all kinds of different situations.”
McPhee opted not to pick the top unprotected player on many rosters and instead, landed his club extra draft picks, prospects and players. In one such example, Vegas did not select Matt Dumba, Marco Scandella or Eric Staal from the Minnesota Wild and got in return prospect Alex Tuch and a conditional third round pick.
The Knights also scooped up second and fourth round selections and the rights to a prospect from Tampa, a sixth from Buffalo, a first and third from Winnipeg as well as a fourth rounder and former 20-goal-scorer Reilly Smith from Florida.
McPhee took advantage of wide-ranging reluctance among clubs to lose valued contributors, adding promising defenceman Shea Theodore from Anaheim and first and second round picks from Columbus.
Teams could protect seven forwards, three defencemen and one goaltender from exposure or eight skaters and a goalie. The Knights were allowed one player from each roster for a minimum of 14 forwards, nine defencemen and three goaltenders.
Fleury, who also netted Vegas a second round pick, will likely be the face of the first roster. The 32-year-old opted to waive his no-movement clause with the Penguins for the chance to become a starting netminder once more after Matt Murray stole his long-time No. 1 job in Pittsburgh.
Joining him in the crease for Vegas are two inexperienced types: Calvin Pickard and Jean-Francois Berube, the latter formerly of the Islanders.
Vegas landed a first rounder in 2017 and a second in 2019 from New York _ all to likely keep the Knights from selecting one of Brock Nelson, Calvin de Haan, or perhaps Ryan Strome.
It was thought that Vegas might load up on goalies, but McPhee passed on intriguing options like Philipp Grubauer, Petr Mrazek and Antti Raanta and instead went for a surplus of defencemen _ and more apparent trade value.
The NHL’s 31st franchise ended up picking 13 on defence, including Methot, the long-time defence partner of Ottawa Senators captain and Norris trophy nominee, Erik Karlsson. Also in that group: Vegas resident Deryk Engelland, Colin Miller, Nate Schmidt, Jason Garrison, Brayden McNabb, Griffin Reinhart, Luca Sbisa and hard-hitting former Montreal Canadien Alexei Emelin.
The Knights aren’t expected to keep them all, though Engelland seems a sure bet.
The 35-year-old was born in Edmonton and raised in British Columbia before playing minor league hockey with the ECHL’s Las Vegas Wranglers. Engelland, who signed a one-year deal with Vegas, has made his off-season home there ever since.
“My roots are here,” Engelland said. ”It’s kind of been in the back of your mind since they announced the team. For it to finally happen, it’s amazing.”
In constructing protection rules for this expansion draft, the NHL hoped Vegas might boast a relatively formidable initial roster. But that’s not likely to be the case here with the Knights preferring to load up on assets that will help in the construction of a more sustainable winner down the line.
Vegas made 10 trades and netted 11 draft picks in all _ including five this weekend in Chicago _ with one sent back in a swap with Winnipeg.
The Knights probably won’t be as bad initially as the expansion Atlanta Thrashers _ who managed a meagre 39 points in 1999 _ but more in line instead with the 2000 Blue Jackets and Wild franchises, which finished 22nd (tied) and 25th overall in their first seasons.
Quality goaltending was key to those clubs and Fleury should offer something similar to the Knights.
Scoring figures to be an early challenge for the group coached by former Panthers bench boss Gerard Gallant. Neal, Perron and the two former Panthers, Marchessault and Smith, are among the few current forwards with any kind of scoring track record in the NHL.
Most of those selected up front were depth types or prospects with minimal experience, including Oscar Lindberg, Tomas Nosek, William Carrier, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, Teemu Pulkkinen and Brendan Leipsic.
The Knights can continue building their roster through free agency with more trades potentially to be announced Thursday.
Formerly of the lowly Colorado Avalanche, Pickard was the first named Knight with selections revealed in reverse order of last season’s standings. McPhee and Foley announced each pick while sitting at a table on stage at the award ceremony.
McPhee accidentally revealed the pick from Dallas _ Cody Eakin _ ahead of the one from Detroit.
Other players picked include Erik Haula, Connor Brickley, Chris Thorburn, David Schlemko, Jon Merrill, Clayton Stoner, and William Karlsson.
Beyond requisite positional numbers, the Knights needed to pick at least 20 players under contract for the 2017-18 season with a minimum collective cap hit of US$43.8 million. Vegas submitted their list of with four minutes to spare before Wednesday’s 10 a.m. ET deadline.
“We’ve needed every minute of this process to get this done,” McPhee said before emailing the picks in a video posted by the team.