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 – 37 players in all, counting seven more acquired through trades and signings.
With side deals arranged during the draft process to keep Vegas away from certain unprotected players, the Golden Knights also have three first-round picks – the sixth, 13th and 15th selections overall – and 12 total choices in Friday’s draft.
The Golden Knights’ expansion draft choices included 30-goal scorer Jonathan Marchessault, veteran forwards James Neal and David Perron, and defensemen Marc Methot, Alexei Emelin, Nate Schmidt, Trevor van Riemsdyk and Brayden McNabb.
Vegas picked up three goalies, 14 forwards and 13 defensemen in the choices announced during the NHL’s annual awards show. The Golden Knights appeared to land a particularly strong corps of blueliners, providing the foundation for the tough, young team envisioned by general manager George 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.”
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 – along with handful of players signed before the draft, most notably coveted Russian center Vadim Shipachyov out of the KHL – certainly appear to form a team that could make noise in the Pacific.
None of the choices got louder approval from the home crowd than the 32-year-old Fleury, who lost his starting job during last season’s playoff run with the back-to-back champion Penguins.
Fleury now 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.”
Fleury will have some help in that community outreach from a local. 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.”
The Golden Knights’ trade acquisitions also are intriguing. The Ducks traded the promising Theodore to stop Vegas from selecting defensemen Sami Vatanen and Josh Manson – and to persuade the Golden Knights to take Clayton Stoner instead, removing his onerous contract from the five-time defending Pacific Division champions’ books.
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.”
Follow AP Hockey Writer Greg Beacham on Twitter: www.twitter.com/gregbeacham
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