Four years ago today, history was made as the Vegas Golden Knights took to the ice for their first ever regular season game – a game they would win 2-1 over the Dallas Stars on the back of two goals from James Neal and 45 saves from Marc-Andre Fleury.
Neal is now three teams removed from Vegas, while Fleury was, of course, traded to Chicago this past summer after a Vezina-winning 2020-21 campaign. But even as George McPhee and Kelly McCrimmon have made wholesale changes to the roster in the years since, five originals remain from that first game.
William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault, Reilly Smith, Brayden McNabb and William Carrier all suited up on Oct. 6th, 2017 and will – barring unforeseen circumstances – do the same this season. It’s worth noting that current Golden Knights Shea Theodore, Alex Tuch and even Zach Whitecloud played for the club during its inaugural season, but were not in the lineup for the opener.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at the journey of all five men during their four years in the black and gold:
Although Neal certainly seemed to be the odds-on favorite to lead the expansion club in scoring given his pedigree and two-goal debut, Karlsson soon emerged as the Golden Knights’ top offensive threat. After managing just 18 goals across three seasons prior to being selected in the expansion draft (the Columbus Blue Jackets even sent first- and second-round picks to entice Vegas to take him), ‘Wild Bill’ exploded.
The 25-year-old potted 43 goals and 78 points while amassing a league-best plus-49, winning the Lady Byng and earning a sixth-place Selke Award finish. In the postseason, Karlsson scored seven goals and added eight assists over 20 games. While he didn’t hit the scoresheet in that first game, his role would quickly grow and he would go onto score 10 goals the following month.
As many observers surely anticipated given his league-high 23.4% shooting percentage in that first season, Karlsson’s scoring prowess wasn’t sustainable, dropping down to 24 goals the following season despite a slightly higher average ice time. That’s more in line with what the Swede has offered the Golden Knights, still enough to land an eight-year contract extension and center a highly successful second line for a Stanley Cup contender.
A favorite of both fans and teammates alike, Marchessault’s Expansion Draft selection was seen as less of a masterstroke by Gallant and more of a bewildering exposure decision on the part of Florida Panthers’ management (from “Panthers focus on defense, leave Marchessault exposed for NHL expansion draft,” Harvey Fialkov, South Florida Sun-Sentinel, 06/18/17).
Marchessault’s 27 goals during 2017-18 actually represented a slight dip from the 30 he notched as the Panthers’ leading scorer during his final year in South Florida. Still, it was good for third on the Golden Knights behind Karlsson and Erik Haula, two ahead of Neal. He also finished second to David Perron in the assist department, tallying 48 to finish with 75 points on the year.
While the 75-point campaign still represents a high water mark on Marchessault’s career, he’s more than proven in the time since that his 2016-17 production in Florida (30 goals, 51 points) was no fluke. The 30-year-old recorded 25 goals and 59 points in 2018-19 and then accumulated 40 goals and 91 points in 121 games over the past two shortened seasons.
The third component of Vegas’ second line, Smith was somehow also plucked from the Panthers, with a 2018 fourth-round pick going the other way. As with his long-time teammate and linemate Marchessault, the former NCAA standout was 26 when the Golden Knights acquired him. While “Marchy” had broken through the season before the Expansion Draft, Smith already had a 25- and a 20-goal season under his belt.
Since joining Vegas, Smith has continued a curious, odd-year phenomenon in which he pots 20-plus goals every other season. Dating back to 2013-14, he’s notched 20-plus in any campaign that ends with an even year (20, 25, 22, 27) and under 20 in the alternating odd years (13, 15, 19, 14). All that to say that you can expect the winger to head into unrestricted free agency next summer on the strength of potting 20 or more goals.
Smith, who could be the next original Knight to depart depending on what next summer brings, may have actually regressed ever so slightly through his time in Vegas. Still, 82 goals and 192 points over four years is well worth the cost of a fourth round pick (my apologies to Jack Gorniak).
Alex Pietrangelo may be the biggest name on the Golden Knights’ blue line, but the secret to the club’s successful back end comes in its stability. McNabb has been a steady presence since day one, while Theodore and Whitecloud were also there during the first season and remain as key cogs. Even Nicolas Hague joined the fold as part of Vegas’ inaugural draft class.
McNabb himself has been a picture of consistency and reliability over four years. Those seasons have all seen him average somewhere between two and five goals, seven and 16 points, and 19:18 and 20:09 of average ice time. No, those numbers don’t jump off the page, which is partially why he so often gets lost in the discussion of key Golden Knights. But there’s something to be said for having a sturdy second pairing guy to rely on – especially at just a $2.5 million cap hit.
The fourth-line grinder position is typically an interchangeable one, often focused on only after the rest of the roster is crafted and a team knows what kind of roster/cap space they still have. In that sense, Carrier has gone against the grain, sticking around for the entirety of the franchise’s existence to date and even landing a four-year contract extension in early 2020.
The reason for the long-term organizational loyalty is simple: Carrier has done his job. The hard-hitter formed a fearsome grind line with Ryan Reaves for years and will now likely do the same with Keegan Kolesar and Nicolas Roy. The term of the deal raised some eyebrows initially, but the 26-year-old has brought consistent performance to date and should continue to do so at a reasonable $1.4 million per year.
Even with knowing the terms of the Expansion Draft, it’s nevertheless pretty remarkable to consider the sustained production Vegas has gotten from this quintet at a mere cost of a fourth rounder. And that’s to say nothing of the Theodore’s, Tuch’s and others whose acquisition was made through or enabled by the draft. It’s been a pretty wild ride through four years and these guys have been there every step of the way.
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I may be a Leafs fan at heart (I’ve witnessed their highs and lows first-hand as a Scotiabank Arena employee), but I’m also a veteran freelance sportswriter who loves a good story. And there’s been no better story in hockey over the past few years than the Vegas Golden Knights. I’m excited to be covering the NHL again on the Golden Knights’ beat.