LAS VEGAS (AP) — Marc-Andre Fleury took the stage at T-Mobile Arena in a brand-new Vegas Golden Knights jersey, and his new fans welcomed him to town with raucous cheers.
After an up-and-down career in Pittsburgh, the three-time Stanley Cup champion goalie is among 30 NHL veterans who could get a fresh start out West after the Golden Knights grabbed him in the NHL expansion draft.
“I didn’t know that was coming,” Fleury said about his new fans’ enthusiasm. “I was a little surprised by that. That was a warm welcome, and I’m getting excited about it.”
A year after the NHL welcomed owner Bill Foley’s 31st franchise into the league, the Golden Knights finally have the core of the team they’ll put on the desert ice this fall.
The choices included defensemen Marc Methot and Alexei Emelin, 30-goal scorer Jonathan Marchessault and veteran forwards David Perron and James Neal. Golden Knights owner Bill Foley and general manager George McPhee announced the selections during the NHL’s annual postseason awards show at T-Mobile Arena, where Vegas will begin play in the fall.
Nobody got more attention than the 32-year-old Fleury, who lost his starting job during last season’s playoff run with the back-to-back champion Penguins. He seems almost certain to be the Golden Knights’ starter with two years on his contract.
“Obviously, we’ve got great fans already, having sold out the season tickets and the reception we had tonight here,” Fleury said. “I’ll give it everything I’ve got to win some games and try to get into the community to meet people and spread the word about the Golden Knights.”
Vegas chose three goalies, 14 forwards and 13 defensemen, including Trevor van Riemsdyk and Brayden McNabb. Vegas appeared to land a particularly strong corps of blueliners through draft choices and trades, providing the foundation for the tough, young team envisioned by McPhee.
“They’re way past getting off the ground,” Nashville general manager David Poile said. “I think this is by far the best expansion team ever.”
As part of the machinations surrounding the draft, the Golden Knights also announced a handful of trade acquisitions, including Anaheim defenseman Shea Theodore and Florida forward Reilly Smith.
After choosing Deryk Engelland from Calgary, the Golden Knights announced a deal with the veteran defenseman, who still lives in Las Vegas during the offseason after playing for the ECHL’s Las Vegas Wranglers a decade ago.
“My roots are here,” Engelland said. “It’s kind of been in the back of your mind since they announced the team. For it to finally happen, it’s amazing. It was a fairly easy decision on my part, and I’m excited to be here.”
Foley paid a $500 million fee to join the league, and the NHL wrote its draft rules to give the Golden Knights more opportunities to compete early in their existence. Vegas’ expansion draft choices certainly appear to form a team that could make noise in the Pacific Division.
After meeting with the Board of Governors earlier in the day, Foley said he was already “very proud” of the roster assembled by McPhee.
“I believe we’ve put together a great team from the net out,” Foley said. “I believe fans are really going to like the team, and the trades and the draft picks and the prospects that we have. It’s not just a player per team. In many cases, it might have been two players a team. It might have been an upgraded draft pick plus a player, all kinds of different situations.”
Thousands of fans braved 116-degree afternoon heat to gather on the south end of the Strip for the unique combination of the awards show and the chance to learn the identities of the home team’s first NHL veterans. The Golden Knights are Las Vegas’ first franchise in a major professional sport.
The expansion draft is a celebratory night, but it only reveals a portion of the franchise-building done by McPhee over the past few months. The Golden Knights also made a series of trades with other teams to dissuade Vegas from picking particular players, allowing them to stockpile draft picks and more talent.
Neal is the most accomplished veteran in the group with 451 career NHL points, including 238 goals. He played a major role in Nashville’s run to the Stanley Cup Final this season.
“What surprised me was the quality of some of our forwards that we were able to get out of this situation,” Foley said. “The people of Las Vegas are going to be happy with what we did. They’re going to be pleasantly surprised.”
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