Adam Lindner | Sports Editor
For the first time since 2000, the NHL will welcome a new club into the league this season as the Vegas Golden Knights, Las Vegas’ first major professional sports franchise, makes its debut.
The Golden Knights will join the league looking to compete in its inaugural season, as General Manager George McPhee equally crafted his team with talent and youth, talent that will enable Vegas to put forth a respectable on-ice product in its first year, but a plethora of young assets that will help to spawn future success.
While McPhee’s efforts certainly provide the new franchise with plenty of positive momentum, history tells us that hockey fans should slightly temper their expectations for the Knights in their first year of competition.
The best season that an expansion NHL franchise has ever had in its first season came in 1993, when the Florida Panthers finished with 83 points, one point out of a playoff spot, and a 33-34-17 record. Although the 1993 Panthers are the cream of the crop when it comes to expansion NHL teams in its first year of competition, those Panthers and the 2017 Knights share a key similarity.
Former Vezina-winning goalie John Vanbiesbrouck led that Florida team, posting a stellar .924 save percentage and a 2.53 goals-against average.
Similarly, Vegas selected 13-year NHL veteran goalie Marc-Andre Fleury in this summer’s Expansion Draft, effectively making Fleury the centerpiece of their team for years to come.
The 32-year-old Fleury spent the entirety of his previous time in the NHL with the Pittsburgh Penguins, compiling a .912 save percentage, a 2.58 goals-against average and earning three Stanley Cup victories over the course of his career.
Fleury figures to provide coveted experience in goal for the Golden Knights, where he is still capable of playing like a quality starting netminder. Beloved in Pittsburgh, there was writing on the wall for the majority of last season that the 2016-17 campaign would be Fleury’s last in a Penguins uniform.
Even having 23-year-old Matt Murray, who started the majority of the Penguins’ games these past few seasons, under contract didn’t make it any easier for Penguins fans that’ve grown accustomed to seeing Flower in net for the Penguins.
“You know, it’s really tough because I’ve grown up here, watching Fleury as a Penguin, and it’ll be sad to him in another uniform,” said Upper St. Clair native and sophomore political science major Joseph Callahan.
“It sucks he’s leaving, and he was such a big part of this franchise for so many years,” said Eric Tignanelli, Penguins enthusiast and senior digital media arts major.
“I do hope he’s very successful in Vegas, and I think he’s one of the best people in hockey, aside from being a very good goalie. I think [Pittsburgh] will take a big hit [due to the lack of his presence,]” Tignanelli said.
While Fleury’s departure does leave a sizable void in net, in the locker room and in the hearts of Penguins fans, Pittsburgh
must continue to direct its focus to the upcoming season, where the team will attempt to become the first to win three consecutive Stanley Cups since the New York Islanders won four consecutive championships from 1980 to 1983.
Pittsburgh lost several key contributors from last season’s team in addition to Fleury, including forwards Nick Bonino, Chris Kunitz, Matt Cullen and defensemen Trevor Daley, Ron Hainsey and Mark Streit.
General Manager Jim Rutherford managed to add sure-handed defenseman Matt Hunwick, enforcer Ryan Reaves and a solid backup goalie in Antti Niemi this offseason to shore up the holes left by the Penguins’ numerous losses, but days removed from the team’s regular season opener against the St. Louis Blues, the Penguins are still left without a bona fide third-line center man.
The general belief surrounding the Penguins is that Greg McKegg, who signed a one-year, $650,000 contract over the summer, may begin the year centering Pittsburgh’s third forward line. Quick, solid in the faceoff circle and willing to kill penalties, McKegg fits the bill for the prototypical third-line centerman, and it seems as though he will begin there this season for the Penguins as Rutherford has yet to deal for another center.
If Pittsburgh can remain healthy throughout this season (we’re looking at you, Kris Letang), it has a good chance of earning another top playoff spot and going on to challenge for its third consecutive Cup, despite playing more games over the past two years (213) than any other team.
How will the NHL’s other teams fare this season, coming off of an offseason that saw exponential player movement, remains to be seen.
Read on for The Duke’s 2017-18 NHL Atlantic Division Preview, with teams ranked in order of their predicted divisional finish.
The second and final part of The Duke’s NHL Preview can be found in next week’s issue.
Atlantic Division —
1. Toronto Maple Leafs — The Leafs seemed as if they were on the verge of becoming an NHL contender ahead of schedule last season when they gave Cup-favorite Washington a run for its money in the opening round of the playoffs, pushing the Capitals to six games. The addition of 19-year vet Patrick Marleau should help Toronto’s younger crop of players as they navigate their first season in the league’s limelight. Led by 20-year-old Auston Matthews, Toronto will have much higher expectations this season than they have in years past, but coach Mike Babcock is well-equipped to guide this young group back into the playoffs this season, and then some.
2. Tampa Bay Lightning — The return of Steven Stamkos and Ryan Callahan to Tampa Bay’s lineup should reinvigorate a Lightning team that nearly made the playoffs last season, thanks to an 85-point effort by Nikita Kucherov. GM Steve Yzerman added solid vets in the offseason in Chris Kunitz and Dan Girardi, and while Tampa’s biggest question mark lies in net, expect the Bolts to light the lamp enough to support Andrei Vasilevskiy in his first full season as a No. 1 goalie in the NHL.
3. Montreal Canadiens — Boasting arguably the game’s best goalie in Carey Price, Canadiens fans should be optimistic heading into this season, especially after the addition of forward Jonathan Drouin in the offseason. Acquired from Tampa Bay for elite defensive prospect Mikhail Sergachev, the Habs should have a bolstered offensive attack this season. They needed more scoring last season, and now figure to put the puck in the back of the net more frequently with Drouin in their lineup. Karl Alzner is another key addition, while Alexander Radulov departed for Dallas.
4. Boston Bruins — Having recently re-signed sniper David Pastrnak to a six-term deal, the Bruins retained one of their brightest players, but did little else to improve their roster. The only two new faces in Boston’s camp this season are AHL MVP Kenny Agostino and former Jets D-man Paul Postma. Considering Toronto’s youthful cast and the return of several Lightning stars, expect Boston to fall a bit in the Atlantic this year.
5. Ottawa Senators — Led by the game’s best defenseman in Erik Karlsson, the Senators needed to add offensive punch this offseason to supplement a methodical game played under Guy Boucher, but failed to do so. Expect for Bobby Ryan to struggle to repeat his herculean efforts that he exhibited this past postseason as the Senators struggle to score this year.
6. Buffalo Sabres — The Sabres need a near-complete season out of Jack Eichel if they’re to take a step in the Atlantic Division this season, but after a house clearing in Buffalo’s front house, the Sabres can count on a refreshed outlook this season to motivate them. Sabres fans will certainly be pleased with the addition of veteran and Sabre-great Jason Pominville, who should be able to help guide a younger Buffalo locker room. Sam Reinhart should provide increased production this year.
7. Florida Panthers — The loss of Jonathan Marchessault’s 30 goals to the expansion Knights really hurts the Panthers, who are in a rebuilding stage two seasons after finishing with 103 points just two seasons ago. Young Panthers Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov and Vincent Trocheck will continue to improve, but Florida has a long way to go to get back to the top of the Atlantic Division. While the season’s outlook is mostly dim, things could go somewhat decently if Aaron Ekblad can play a full 82.
8. Detroit Red Wings — In the painful stage between contending and rebuilding, Detroit inaugurates a brand new Little Caesars Arena in Downtown Detroit this season that will be shared with the Detroit Pistons. But little excitement surrounds the franchise other than the opening of new arena. Trevor Daley, a member of both of the Penguins’ last two Stanley Cup-winning teams, joins a Red Wings team in flux at the moment. It remains to be seen what happens with Andreas Athanasiou’s contract dispute, and Riley Sheahan.
The Duke’s Staff Cup Predictions:
Adam Lindner — Sports Editor: EDM 4 – TBL 2
Bry McDermott — Asst. Photo Editor: ANA 4 – WSH 2
Raymond Arke — News Editor: MIN 4 – CBJ 3
Leah Devorak — Editor-in-Chief: CBJ 4 – EDM 1