By JOHN MARSHALL, AP Sports Writer
The Vegas Golden Knights have been the hit of Sin City, exciting a fan base that finally has a professional sports team to root for.
After months of buildup, it’s finally time to show what they can do on the ice.
The Golden Knights are new, they’re young, but they’re not heading into their inaugural season just to be walkovers.
“They put a great group together,” Vegas forward Reid Duke said. “You never really know what to expect, but they made some big splashes. Got a lot of good players, a lot of good picks. It’s nice to see that they are not only building for right now, but the future, too.”
Las Vegas has longed for a major professional sports team for years, but was always rebuffed due to the gambling aspect of the town.
The NHL became the first major sport to break the Vegas ice, voting to make the Golden Knights the first expansion team since the Minnesota Wild and Columbus Blue Jackets in 2000.
The Golden Knights hired former Columbus and Florida coach Gerard Gallant to run the team and general manager George McPhee stocked the roster with a mix of veterans and young players.
The veterans include goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who won three Stanley Cup titles with Pittsburgh and an Olympic gold medal with Canada, top-line winger James Neal and hard-working winger Reilly Smith. They also added a 30-goal scorer in Jonathan Marchessault from Florida.
The Golden Knights also are loaded with defensemen through the expansion draft and a multitude of trades, though it could take some time for everyone to jell, as it typically does with an expansion team.
“We’re a new group, it’s not like you’re coming back to a team like when I was in Florida and 19 of your players are returning,” Gallant said. “This year it’s all new players.”
A few more things to look for from the Golden Knights in 2017-18:
FLEURY’S RIDE: Fleury was the winningest goalie in Pittsburgh’s history and played brilliantly at times in the early part of the Penguins’ run to a second straight Stanley Cup last season. But he was pulled after allowing four goals in the Eastern Conference Finals and lost his starting job to rookie Matt Murray. The Pens considered Murray their goalie of the future and left Fleury exposed in the expansion draft, allowing the Golden Knights to have a steady presence between the pipes for their opening season.
NEAL’S PRODUCTION: Neal played on a balanced team in Nashville, but still managed to score 23 goals or more (31 in 2015-16) during his three seasons there. He’s eclipsed 20 goals in all nine of his NHL seasons, with a high of 40 during an 81-point season with Pittsburgh in 2011-12. Neal likely will get a lot of playing time on the power play and should be Vegas’ go-to shooter.
ENGELLAND AT HOME: One player who didn’t have to move to play for the Golden Knights is defenseman Deryk Engelland. He has lived in Las Vegas since playing for the now-defunct Las Vegas Wranglers of the ECHL despite playing for Pittsburgh and Calgary during his seven-year NHL career.
EXPANSION BARRIERS: The Golden Knights face stiff odds of having a winning record. The NHL added nine teams from 1991 to 2000 and none managed to have a winning record. The best: the Florida Panthers, who went 33-34-17 in 1993-94.
SCHEDULING: The Golden Knights open their inaugural season on the road against Dallas on Oct. 6. They play at Arizona the next night then have their home opener against the Coyotes on Oct. 10.