It’s Golden Knights time in Las Vegas. Here’s what you need to know.
The season tickets and lavish suites were swiftly snapped up. The merch is flying off the shelves. And the social-media firestorm ignited by the selection of a team name that was condemned as both uninspiring and confusing has long since been extinguished.
Make no mistake: Las Vegas has Golden Knights fever, and nobody is smiling wider than Bill Foley. Foley is the man responsible for bringing Las Vegas its first major professional sports franchise, in the form of a National Hockey League expansion team that debuts October 6 in Dallas (the Knights’ first home game at T-Mobile Arena is slated for October 10).
But as we inch closer to this historic moment, we wonder: Just who are these Vegas (don’t call them Las Vegas) Golden Knights? Sure, we’ve learned quite a bit about Foley over the past couple of years, and we’re certainly familiar with his minority owners, the Maloof family. But what sort of team have they constructed? Who are the marquee players? What style of hockey will they play? And what should we expect during this inaugural season (and beyond)?
Let’s body-check these questions into the boards, so that when the puck finally drops, you’ll be an informed Golden Knights fan.
Who’s calling the (slap) shots? Foley and the Maloofs may be pulling the financial strings, but they aren’t in charge of day-to-day operations. Those duties fall to general manager George McPhee and head coach Gerard Gallant.
One of Foley’s first hires, McPhee joined the Knights in July 2016 after spending one season in the front office of the New York Islanders. Previously, McPhee had a 17-year run as GM of the Washington Capitals, helping construct a team that won seven division titles and reached one Stanley Cup final.
While McPhee, 59, had an undistinguished NHL playing career — he tallied 24 goals in 115 games across parts of seven seasons from 1982-89 — Gallant was a mainstay in the league for 11 seasons (1984-95). In 563 games with the Detroit Red Wings and Tampa Bay Lightning, the hard-nosed left-winger had 207 goals and 260 assists (467 points) before a back injury forced him to retire. Gallant then made a smooth transition to coaching, first at the elite junior-hockey level, then as an NHL assistant. He was an assistant with the Columbus Blue Jackets when they entered the league in 2000, so he has experience working with an expansion team.
Gallant, who landed the Knights job in April and turns 54 this month, has had two previous NHL head-coaching stints with the Blue Jackets (2004-06) and Florida Panthers (2014-17), posting a combined 152-141-4 record.
Fast and furious. Foley was wise to turn to experienced guys like McPhee and Gallant, as both know the modern NHL game very well. Which is to say they understand that pushing the puck across the goal line can be more challenging than getting Congress to come to a consensus on healthcare reform.
So when it came time for McPhee to select players in the expansion and amateur drafts in June, as well as sign free agents, he put speed and quickness at the top of his priority list.
Of course, in hockey, you’ll only go as far as your goaltender will take you, so McPhee made sure to pluck a good one in the expansion draft: two-time Stanley Cup champion Marc-André Fleury, a 2003 No. 1 overall draft pick who had spent his entire 14-year career (691 games) with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
So … who are these guys? As of late July, the Knights had 36 names on their roster (21 forwards, 12 defensemen, three goaltenders). Per NHL rules, that roster must be trimmed to a maximum of 23 players when the 2017-18 season begins. Barring trades or injuries, Fleury will don the black and gold on, ahem, “Opening Knight,” as will marquee forwards and fellow expansion draftees James Neal (Nashville Predators), David Perron (St. Louis Blues) and Jonathan Marchessault (Florida Panthers).
Neal has scored at least 20 goals in all 10 of his NHL seasons, and his 238 goals are more than any other Knights player. Perron (159 goals in 10 seasons) and Marchessault (career-high 30 goals last year) also provide firepower.
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These four players figure to quickly become fan favorites. Unfortunately, it may not be for long: At 32, Fleury is on the downside of his career, while the trio of forwards are all in the final year of their contracts (and thus may become trade bait).
On the bright side, good young prospects await, thanks to McPhee’s work in the amateur draft. Led by first-ever pick Cody Glass — an 18-year-old center from Winnipeg, Canada — the Knights’ draft was ranked tops in the league by several respected hockey publications. Alas, it will be several years before Glass and his draft mates land in Las Vegas, which brings us to ...
Check those expectations. This being Vegas, we’re obligated to check the odds board, which shows that the Golden Knights are a 100-to-1 long shot to win the 2018 Stanley Cup. It might as well be 100,000-to-1.
The cold, hard truth is expansion teams struggle — usually for several years. Case in point: The NHL’s last two entrants, the Blue Jacks and Minnesota Wild in 2000-01, finished their inaugural season in last place in their divisions, with 28 and 25 wins respectively. It took Columbus eight years to qualify for the 16-team playoffs; Minnesota did it in three.
This reality, of course, doesn’t exactly jibe with the notoriously fickle nature of the Las Vegas sports fan, who exhibits as much patience as a 2-year-old on an airplane. However, Knights fans who can tolerate the growing pains figure to be rewarded in time. For one thing, McPhee has a record of building teams that sustain success. Most important, Foley — who played the high-stakes finance game into a reported net worth of $600 million — isn’t used to losing. And that won’t change now that his business has moved from the boardroom to the ice.
“When I hired George McPhee as general manager, he asked me, ‘Will you spend to the (salary) cap?’” Foley was quoted as telling Forbes.com in a July article. “I told him, ‘Bill Foley wants to win, and he’s going to win. There is no budget.’”
What the PUCK?!
Hockey has a distinct lexicon. Here are some of the terms you’ll need to know.
When a hockey player slams into an opponent with his body. It’s a penalty when done too severely — say, if player leaves his feet in order to maximize impact.
When a player uses his stick, held in both hands, to check an opponent. Penalty!
Freezing the puck
When a player holds the biscuit against the boards with his stick or skate, stopping play
When one player scores three goals in a match
For some reason, it’s illegal to whack the puck over the center line and the opposing team’s goal line without scoring. Watch a few matches, maybe you can explain it to us.
Occurs when an attacking player skates into the offensive zone before the puck.
Derisive term for when a team isn’t playing up to potential
A shot involving a mighty windup, then letting the stick hit the ice just behind the puck, so the bending stick’s kinetic energy is released into the shot. Also a 1977 Paul Newman movie.