Jonathan Marchessault, and how he found his way to Vegas, might be the epitome of how the Golden Knights forged their improbable run to the Stanley Cup final.
After the centre was surprisingly left exposed by the Florida Panthers for last June’s expansion draft, the Knights not only got the former 30-goal man for nothing, but Vegas general manager George McPhee also acquired Reilly Smith from the Panthers on the promise he’d select Marchessault.
The pair now make up two-thirds of the Knights’ top line along with William Karlsson, another diamond found in the expansion-draft rough.
That side deal with the Panthers is just one example of how Vegas went about building its team by playing opposing GMs off one another, taking advantage of clubs up against the salary cap, and identifying undervalued talent.
The Knights didn’t simply pick the best or the best-known player available from each of the NHL’s other 30 franchises in the expansion draft.
They instead focused on speedy, driven castoffs with a certain character and an ability to play the system of head coach Gerard Gallant – himself a man with something to prove after being unceremoniously dumped by Florida – while also making a number of trades that netted draft picks for the future.
After the Knights beat the Winnipeg Jets to win the Western Conference final in five games and move to an astonishing 12-3 in the playoffs, Marchessault said Vegas believed it had something special long before topping the Pacific Division with a 109-point campaign or its stunning postseason run.
“We just love to go against the haters,” said Marchessault, whose club swept Los Angeles and beat San Jose in six in before disposing of Winnipeg. “That’s what everybody is fuelled off.”
With that sentiment in mind, here’s a look at how the Knights accumulated some of the more important pieces of a roster that will open the Cup final against the Washington Capitals on Monday.
Marchessault and Smith
Not wanting to lose a young defenceman in the expansion draft, the Panthers chose to protect four blueliners, meaning that both Marchessault and Smith were available. Marchessault scored 30 goals in 2016-17, while Smith, who signed a US$25-million extension that kicked in this season, scored just 15 times on the heels of a 25-goal campaign with Florida. In the end, the Knights got Smith from the Panthers for a fourth-round pick for agreeing to take Marchessault. This season, Marchessault had 27 goals and 48 assists, while Smith had 22 goals and 38 assists. The pair have also led the way in the playoffs with a combined 34 points. Marchessault signed a six-year contract extension with the Knights worth US$30-million in January.
With just 15 goals to his name in two full seasons, the winger was left unprotected by Columbus. The Blue Jackets were wary of losing another young player and also wanted to rid themselves of David Clarkson’s albatross of a contract. So they sweetened the deal by adding first- and second-round picks if Vegas took Karlsson and added the injured Clarkson’s US$5.25-million salary. To almost everyone’s surprise, Karlsson blossomed to score 43 times to go along with 35 assists. His contributions in the playoffs have also been huge with six goals and seven assists in 15 games.
The three-time Stanley Cup champion with the Pittsburgh Penguins has been the face of the Knights since he was selected in the expansion draft. Vegas knew the Penguins would be protecting fellow netminder Matt Murray, leaving the 33-year-old exposed. Pittsburgh ensured that Vegas would select Fleury by adding a second-round pick with a couple of other goalie options on the board. Despite missing a stretch with a concussion, Fleury put up a career-best .927 save percentage in the regular season before posting a .947 mark through three playoff rounds.
Selected from the Nashville Predators in the expansion draft, Neal came as advertised with 25 goals and 19 assists in the regular season before adding four goals and five assists in the playoffs. Set to become an unrestricted free agent this summer, it was thought Neal would be traded at the deadline to a contender. But with Vegas instead occupying that role, the Knights kept him for what has become an incredible post-season run.
Erik Haula and Alex Tuch
Like the Panthers, the Minnesota Wild were wary of losing other players off their roster, so they swung a side deal that saw Vegas take Haula in the expansion draft and get Tuch, a former first-round pick, for a third-round selection. Haula had 29 goals and 26 assists this season, while the still-emerging Tuch had 15 goals and 22 assists. Tuch has also scored six times in the playoffs.
Schmidt, McNabb, Theodore and Engelland
While not the flashiest blueline corps, the Knights went with quantity at the expansion draft when they selected 13 defencemen. Vegas wound up dealing a number of those players, but hung onto these four to make up the heart of its back end. The 22-year-old Theodore, with perhaps the most upside of the bunch, was acquired as part of a package that saw the Knights agree to select Clayton Stoner from the Anaheim Ducks while staying away from the likes of fellow defenders Josh Manson and Sami Vatanen.