Fleury new face of Vegas NHL expansion franchise
By Matt Youmans
VSiN senior editor
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A baby-faced expansion franchise finally has an identity other than the owner, general manager and coach. Marc-Andre Fleury, a three-time Stanley Cup champion goaltender, will be the veteran face of the Vegas Golden Knights for the immediate future.
With temperatures soaring to 115 degrees in the desert, the NHL’s newest team to hit the ice was a hot topic Wednesday, when the league staged its awards show and expansion draft inside T-Mobile Arena.
Fleury, picked from the roster of the Pittsburgh Penguins, was introduced to the crowd and received a standing ovation.
“You couldn’t have a better guy,” Penguins star Sidney Crosby said. “He’s going to be so important for their team with his experience.”
Fleury, 32, was the No. 1 overall draft pick by Pittsburgh in 2003. He started in goal for the Stanley Cup champions in 2009 and was the backup to Matt Murray on title teams in 2016 and 2017, when he started and won some crucial games in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
“I think Fleury’s still a good goalie,” said Sunset Station sports book director Chuck Esposito, a lifelong Chicago Blackhawks fan. “You see he was supplanted in Pittsburgh by Murray, but for this team, I think he’s a good goalie and he brings leadership to the locker room.”
The Golden Knights selected 30 players and acquired several additional draft picks on Wednesday, but how the team will look on opening night in October remains mostly a mystery.
Vegas owner Bill Foley and general manager George McPhee announced the picks. The coach is Gerard Gallant, and Fleury is expected to start in goal. Those are the first pieces of what will be an ever-changing puzzle.
Foley said fans should be “pleasantly surprised” with the quality of the team.
Prior to the expansion draft, Station Casinos sports books posted the Golden Knights’ regular-season point total for 2017-18 at 72½. Esposito said ‘over’ action showed this week. The prop was taken down for a day and will be reposted Thursday. The NHL Draft is Friday in Chicago.
“I think the Golden Knights have some scorers up front, but defensively there are some unknowns. What they might lack is some experience on defense,” Esposito said. “I thought they did a good job with youth and prospects and stockpiling draft picks.
“There are so many rumors of possible deals and rumors of players who were taken and are going to be shipped off. That’s the key. We just don’t know what’s going to happen in the next 48 hours.”
The Golden Knights open the season Oct. 6 at Dallas. The Westgate sports book opened the Stars as minus-250 favorites.
Vegas’ home opener is set for Oct. 10 against Arizona. The Westgate opened the game as a pick’em (minus-105), but Stations opened the Coyotes at minus-125.
Only four teams finished the 2016-17 season with fewer than 72½ points — Arizona and New Jersey (70 each), Vancouver (69) and Colorado (48).
The Golden Knights took Avalanche goalie Calvin Pickard, a 25-year-old who surprisingly was left unprotected. Pickard led Colorado in save percentage (.904) and goals-against average (2.98) last season.
“I think that was a really good move,” Esposito said. “Pickard was a really good goalie on a really bad team. He can be mentored behind Fleury.”
Vegas, which had to choose one player from each NHL team, was required to pick 14 forwards, nine defensemen, three goalies and four more players of any position.
James Neal, a high-scoring veteran forward from the Nashville Predators, was a big-name addition for the Golden Knights. Neal helped Nashville reach the Stanley Cup Finals, losing to Pittsburgh in six games.
Other key additions were Jonathan Marchessault, who scored 51 points for the Florida Panthers last season, and defenseman Nate Schmidt from the Washington Capitals.
Esposito said he expects the NHL wagering handle to increase significantly, primarily due to action on Vegas’ games.
“You may see a bevy of props just on the Golden Knights’ games alone,” Esposito said. “It does appear there is definite excitement and there is going to be a lot of support for the team.”