It seems like yesterday that the Vegas Golden Knights assembled the first edition of their roster at the 2017 NHL Expansion Draft. But, three years have been more than enough time to cement the “lore” of Sin City’s hockey team – and a lot is in thanks to three unseemly players acquired that night who have become one of hockey’s marquee lines.
They began as a team comprised of what we deemed as “misfit toys” from the other 30 NHL competitors. So, as the case for any franchise’s inaugural season, expectations were nothing above zero heading into 2017-18. However, part of what makes this game so great is the staggeringly unpredictable. The “unpredictable” is that these “misfit toys” were really diamonds in the rough – united together by George McPhee to make for a fine-tuned machine.
Awaiting the start of their fourth season, the Knights are already a perennial Cup contender after three playoff births, including trips to the Western Conference Final and Stanley Cup Final. There’s no denying this is greatly because of McPhee’s masterful management, but the headlining act in Vegas is the chemistry of first-liners William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith, which has amazed.
Collectively, the three of them had tallied 307 points before Vegas – 187 of which came from Smith’s more tenured past. Karlsson and Marchessault had only been NHL mainstays for a combined three seasons. The trio has now tallied 528 points since sporting grey and they’re the top three scorers in the three-year franchise history.
Of course, the Florida Panthers would brilliantly trade Smith at the expansion draft in order for Vegas to select Marchessault, and the Columbus Blue Jackets surrendered a first and future third-round pick in order to pawn off Karlsson. So, what is it that has made these once sheddable assets into a lethal force of offensive potency?
This line is the perfect microcosm of today’s NHL: speed, skill, and a two-way game. None of these guys are snipers or have big presences, but they play shut-down hockey in all three zones while capitalizing on opponents’ mistakes. Smith and Marchessault place themselves in all the right places to bury opportune goals, while Karlsson’s set up skills string everything together. It’s rare that three 200-foot players who are technically depth forwards can unite to neutralize the likes of a Connor McDavid or Nathan MacKinnon line, but the whole here is just greater than the sum of its parts.
Of all of the grizzled pros that Vegas has acquired in their respective Cup pushes throughout the past few years, these three seem to continue acting as the team’s nucleus no matter what personnel unpacks in the locker room stalls next to them. While the trio serves as the club’s anchor, it makes the production from big-bodied goal-scorers such as Alex Tuch, Mark Stone or Max Pacioretty only more lucrative. Their three-zone game also alleviates defensive and goaltending pressure, despite the talent the Knights already have at those positions.
A System that Clicks
The arrival of Peter DeBoer’s “pressure hockey” style all over the ice was the perfect fit for this lineup card. They were the second most difficult team to score on in the playoffs and the hardest team to get shots on while averaging an impressive 36.5 per game. Between the three players, the offensive output wasn’t there during the run, as Marchessault had the most points with a modest 10, but Vegas’s scoring was a problem throughout the bench anyway—especially in the Vancouver series. I have no doubt the production will return to its former ways for all of them.
DeBoer brings expertise in kneading out inconsistencies. We saw the energy after Gerard Gallant was fired and even back when DeBoer coached the New Jersey Devils and San Jose Sharks. Both teams went from mediocrity to the Stanley Cup Final in his first tries. Gallant was able to summon the unique intangibles of these three, but I think a full season with DeBoer will push the limits.
It’s a rare and coveted commodity in the NHL when it comes to finding the versatility and effectiveness that this triad wields—much less to have all three fall into your lap and subsequently kickstart what could be a dynasty in your franchise infancy. But, I think it’s fair to say that overall, their tenure together has been lightning in a bottle if we’ve ever seen it in this league. With DeBoer at the helm from the gate this year and the team momentum at a high, expect Marchessault, Smith and Karlsson to keep the show grooving on the strip.