There’s no cookie cutter formula for building a franchise. The front office implements a five-year plan, then is judged by fans and the all-important win column on whether it worked or not. The hope is for gradual improvements each year while eventually making a run at the postseason. And patience is key, as finding the winning combination is a delicate balance that can be elusive.
Management has to make choices regarding player evaluation, teaching the kids, bringing in veterans, balancing the salary cap, and dozens of other decision in an attempt to build a winner. You can hit the jackpot with a star player from the draft, only to have the personnel around him underachieve. You can develop a terrific offensive team, only to see a shortage of wins because of a soft defense.
It’s no easy task to construct a winner, although on rare occasions it may seem that way. The Vegas Golden Knights under general manager George McPhee were one of those rarities, a remarkable story last season. Year One was an impressive collection of players that started winning the moment the first puck was dropped. They really were an instant powerhouse, finishing their inaugural season fifth in the NHL in goals scored, No. 11 on the power play, eighth in goals allowed, No. 10 in penalty killing. Any coaching staff would be delighted with that kind of balance in a 31-team league.
Now that the first season is in the books as a tremendous success, management has moved to the second year by building around the core players. The two biggest names the Golden Knights plucked out of the expansion draft were former Pittsburgh Penguins’ forward James Neal and net-minder Marc-Andre Fleury. Both were outstanding acquisitions that excelled.
Fleury finished the 2017-18 campaign tied for second in the league in goals allowed (2.24) and his .927 save percentage was tied for sixth. He will turn 34 next month, but the 14-year veteran is not showing any signs of diminishing ability. He has three Stanley Cup rings and came close to getting a fourth in Vegas. Fleury will be the bedrock of the Golden Knights defense again.
Golden Knights’ First Line Looks Elite
On offense, the first line remains intact, the second line is in transition. Neal decided to leave Las Vegas after one season and signed with Calgary. He finished sixth on the team in points, so the front office believes they have plenty of offensive firepower with the returning top line of William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith. The trio combined to tally 92 goals.
The 25-year-old Karlsson had one of most explosive turnarounds in hockey history. The former second-round draft pick scored nine and six goals in his previous two years in Columbus, playing 81 games in both seasons. He combined for 30 assists in those two years, as well. Upon joining the Knights he suddenly morphed into Rocket Richard, tallying 43 goals with 35 assists. His ice time only increased by five minutes per game compared to his two seasons with the Blue Jackets, but his production on the ice was electrifying. He won the Lady Byng Award for sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct, then re-upped with Vegas by signing a $5.25 million, one-year contract. The one-year deal was smart for both parties. If he shows consistency with similar top-level production, Karlsson will help the Golden Knights on the ice and help himself to a potentially bigger contract after the season.
The 27-year-old Marchessault had been with three other teams for short stints before joining expansion Vegas. In four years with Columbus, Tampa Bay and Florida, Marchessault had 38 goals and 34 assists in 124 games. But he flourished with his new team in the desert, with 27 goals and 48 assists. In fairness, he didn’t come out of nowhere the way Karlsson did, as two years ago Marchessault had 30 goals, 21 assists with Florida.
He got better in the playoffs with a team-leading eight goals while racking up 13 assists. Vegas didn’t wait until last year’s Cinderella season concluded. Recognizing his value the front office inked Marchessault to a six-year contract extension in January. He will be a cornerstone for the team through 2023-24.
Right winger Reilly Smith rounds out the top-line trio, more of a steady team-oriented two-way player than a speedy, dazzling scorer. He put up good numbers in Boston and Florida over four years and has done the same in Vegas, garnering 22 goals and 38 assists last year. His strengths are consistency and a commitment to defense, a two-way threat that is essential to winning but often flies under the radar. His plus-minus last season was +31, third-best on the team.
“He’s our best all-around player,” Marchessault said of Smith. Vegas management wouldn’t argue with that. They see things in Smith that his previous stops didn’t, as he is signed through 2021-22 at five-million annually.
Smith is entering his prime at age 27, as is another winger who helped lead the Knights to the Stanley Cup round in Erik Haula. Haula had 14 and 15 goals in his last two seasons in Minnesota. He signed a three-year deal before Vegas played its first game, then fit right in with 29 goals during a breakout campaign, second on the squad. Through the first 79 games, only two times did he go three games without a point. That included a team-best 12 power play goals.
Second Line Question Marks
Haula was used in Minnesota on the fourth line in a bottom-six checking role, so the Vegas coaching staff deserves accolades for recognizing he could be a scorer. Haula teamed on the second-line with Neal and David Perron, but both left as free agents, so retooling that second line is a key for the new season. Newcomers Max Pacioretty and Paul Stastny are getting the first shot, while 22-year old Alex Tuch (15 goals, 22 assists as a rookie) is also in the mix.
The 29-year-old Pacioretty looks like a good fit, surpassing the 30-goal mark five times in Montreal. He has plenty to prove after tallying just 17 goals a year ago. Pacioretty admitted he was distracted about his contract status, so Vegas has removed that by giving him a four-year contract.
The 32-year-old Statsny is off a 16-goal campaign with St. Louis and is locked up for three years. It’s a bit of a gamble, as the center hasn’t hit the 20-goal mark in five years and will turn 33 in December. That second-line will be worth watching closely as the season begins, as searching for the right pieces means the work of the front office is never done.