By STEPHEN WHYNO, AP Hockey Writer
George McPhee can’t wait to fill the white board, the one in the Vegas Golden Knights’ expansion draft room. On Wednesday night, the staff will start adding the names of players who will become part of the expansion team for its first NHL season.
“We’re going to put our team together and we’ll watch it come to life in front of us,” McPhee said.
What will that team look like when it takes the ice in early October? It won’t have all the top-end talent available because side deals will allow Vegas to stockpile draft picks and prospects for the future, but it will probably be the most competitive expansion team in the league’s history.
“I’m really pleased with what’s available,” McPhee told reporters in Las Vegas on Sunday. “This has worked out very well for the Vegas Golden Knights, and we expect to put a good, entertaining club on the ice.”
Here’s a projection of who the inaugural Golden Knights might snap up by Wednesday night:
GOALTENDERS (MINIMUM 3)
SURE BET: Three-time Stanley Cup champion Marc-Andre Fleury seems like the most reliable pick on the board, a recognizable face of the franchise who can easily start 50-60 games and give the Golden Knights chances to win. Fleury waived his no-movement clause so the Pittsburgh Penguins didn’t have to force another trade, and the 32-year-old can go back to being a clear No. 1 goalie.
WORTH THE GAMBLE: Fleury could be joined by an established 20-something backup, like Philadelphia’s Michal Neuvirth, Detroit’s Petr Mrazek, Colorado’s Calvin Pickard or New York’s Antti Raanta.
McPhee and Vegas goaltending coach Dave Prior have connections to Neuvirth and Washington’s Philipp Grubauer from drafting them with the Capitals. McPhee described Neuvirth as “almost technically perfect.”
“It was just about him growing up and maturing,” McPhee said at the scouting combine. “We thought that when that happened, he’d be an outstanding goaltender. And he’s at that point now. He can be really good.”
ROLLING THE DICE: Maybe Vegas wants to groom its starter of the future, in which case Grubauer, Boston’s Malcolm Subban, Detroit’s Jared Coreau or Toronto’s Antoine Bibeau could fit the bill.
DON’T SLEEP ON: Vegas controls the trade market and can make some extra picks to flip a goalie or two. Arizona and Philadelphia are in need of starters.
DEFENSEMEN (MINIMUM 9)
SURE BET: Assuming Anaheim has already worked out a trade to keep Vegas away from Sami Vatanen and Josh Manson — perhaps at the cost of a first-round pick — there are still plenty of young, affordable defensemen to choose from along with some veterans. Dion Phaneuf refusing to waive his no-movement clause forced Ottawa to protect him and expose 31-year-old Marc Methot.
Minnesota’s plethora of blue liners made Matt Dumba, 22, and Marco Scandella, 27, available unless the Wild is willing to fork something over, and 25-year-old right-shooting Trevor van Riemsdyk from Chicago seems ticketed for the Golden Knights.
WORTH THE GAMBLE: With speed, skating and puck-moving skills a priority, Detroit’s Xavier Oullet (23), Washington’s Nate Schmidt (25) and Montreal’s Nikita Nesterov (24) all could fit well. Want some more size and physicality? Vegas could look at Boston’s Colin Miller (24), Edmonton’s Griffin Reinhart (23) and Buffalo’s Zach Bogosian (26).
ROLLING THE DICE: Pending free agent Kevin Shattenkirk of the Capitals wants to be a No. 1 defenseman and could get that role in Vegas.
“It’s a very interesting situation,” Shattenkirk said. “Usually, you’re talking to teams or thinking of teams and you have some sort of idea of how they’re built or their history or whatever it may be, and they are completely fresh.”
DON’T SLEEP ON: The Golden Knights will be young, but San Jose’s David Schlemko (30) and Paul Martin (36) and New Jersey’s Ben Lovejoy (33) are veteran options.
FORWARDS (MINIMUM 14)
SURE BET: This is where elite talent already under contract is hard to find, outside of maybe Nashville’s James Neal, a 10-time 20-goal scorer, and 32-year-old Minnesota center Eric Staal. Vegas could use free agency to stock its top forwards, as it already has by signing Vadim Shipacyhov out of the KHL.
WORTH THE GAMBLE: Among established NHL forwards, Vegas has the pick of two 26-year-olds from Florida: right winger Reilly Smith and center Jonathan Marchessault, who set career highs with 30 goals, 21 assists and 51 points last season and is the biggest bargain in the league at $750,000. With so many Cup teams built down the middle, Dallas’ Cody Eakin (who McPhee also drafted), Minnesota’s Erik Haula and St. Louis’ Jori Lehtera could help both present and future.
ROLLING THE DICE: Vegas can build a young nucleus with some intriguing possibilities, assuming Columbus has persuaded McPhee not to take 17-goal scorer Josh Anderson and the New York Islanders have worked out a way to keep 56-point producer Josh Bailey. One-time prospects Marko Dano from Winnipeg, Mikhail Grigorenko from Colorado and Nail Yakupov from St. Louis might benefit from bigger opportunities under coach Gerard Gallant.
DON’T SLEEP ON: If Vegas is indeed getting Blackhawks center Marcus Kruger, he’s a nice depth player at 27, and Montreal’s Tomas Plekanec, who is 34, satisfies a veteran component and could fit perfectly as the franchise’s first captain.