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Golden Knights ready to take spotlight

At long last, showtime at hand for NHL expansion team

by Lisa Dillman @reallisa / Staff Writer

Those waiting to hear expectations for the expansion Vegas Golden Knights in their inaugural NHL season will be disappointed, because the architect politely declines to reveal them.

"We want to be really competitive and do the best we can," general manager George McPhee said. "We're going to focus on what and not when, and we'll just keep trying to make good decisions and keep doing our best.

"One day we're going to wake up and it's going to be a real good team. Beyond that, I'm not going to give anyone a timetable, because I don't really have one. We'll get there when we get there."

Here is a look at the five keys for the Golden Knights, the inside scoop on their roster questions and projected lines for the 2017-18 season:



1. Using Fleury wisely

The Golden Knights will be careful not to overload their No. 1 goaltender, 32-year-old Marc-Andre Fleury, and the early schedule should help.

Vegas has back-to-back games to begin the season, on Oct. 6-7 (at the Dallas Stars and at the Arizona Coyotes), and doesn't have another back-to-back until Oct. 30-31 (at the New York Islanders and at the New York Rangers).

Fleury's backup is Calvin Pickard, who played 50 games with the Colorado Avalanche (15-31-2, 2.98 goals-against average, .904 save percentage) last season. How many games each goaltender will play will be based on performance, but expect Fleury to be in the 55-60 range.

Video: COL@VGK: Fleury shuts down Landeskog's one-timer


2. Florida reunion

This will be the second time forwards Reilly Smith and Jonathan Marchessault will play for Vegas coach Gerard Gallant.

If it goes as well as it did when the three were together with the Atlantic Division champion Florida Panthers in 2015-16, that would be good news. 

Smith and Marchessault have been on the top line in training camp with center Vadim Shipachyov. Marchessault should see plenty of time on the No. 1 power-play unit; eight of his 30 goals last season came on the man-advantage.


3. Neal's return to health

Forward James Neal's presence in the lineup for the season opener against the Stars is uncertain. 

Neal, playing for the Nashville Predators, broke his right hand in Game 1 of the Western Conference Final against the Anaheim Ducks on May 12 and played with the injury through the six-game loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Stanley Cup Final.

Neal practiced with his Golden Knights teammates for the first time on Sept. 26. He is racing the clock for the opener, considered from 1-3 weeks away. Vegas will need offense from Neal, who had 41 points (23 goals, 18 assists) in 70 games last season and 31 goals in 82 games in 2015-16.


4. Schmidt poised for next step

Any concerns the Golden Knights had about defenseman Nate Schmidt's ankle injury during offseason training on Aug. 17 were erased early in camp.

"He looks very confident and is playing well," McPhee said. "He could potentially earn a lot of ice time for us. The ankle hasn't slowed him down."

Vegas has high expectations for Schmidt, who, at 26, is approaching the prime of his career. He had 17 points (three goals, 14 assists) in 60 games with the Washington Capitals last season.


5. Starting strong

The Golden Knights are trying to finesse that fine line between being a competitive team as early as possible but not looking past the need to put good young players into the system.

An early home-heavy schedule could give Vegas a boost; following its first two games on the road, it has a seven-game homestand at T-Mobile Arena. The Golden Knights' first three opponents -- the Stars, Coyotes and Detroit Red Wings -- missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season.



Biggest lock

Fleury brings a special blend of star power and stability to the Golden Knights. His role may have been reduced last season for the Stanley Cup champion Penguins, but he won nine of Pittsburgh's 16 playoff victories during their 2017 Cup run (9-6, 2.56 goals-against average, .924 save percentage) when starter Matt Murray was injured.

Video: First glimpse of Vegas Golden Knights at home

Biggest battle 

The Golden Knights wisely stocked up on defensemen, but the byproduct has created a logjam at that position.

McPhee said they will be keeping eight defensemen on his roster. Vegas had 11 on hand after training camp was a revolving door of experimentation and evaluation. 

"We're going to have difficult decisions to make there," McPhee said.

Gallant, at least, seemed to indicate offense-minded defenseman Shea Theodore would be starting the season in Las Vegas, not with Chicago of the American Hockey League. 

"I don't know who had him on the bubble," Gallant said.


Most intriguing addition

Before camp, McPhee was high on Shipachyov, 30, who played nine seasons in the Kontinental Hockey League.

The Golden Knights have been working hard to fast-track his assimilation, and McPhee hasn't moved off his previous assessments. Shipachyov was the third-leading scorer in the KHL last season with 76 points (26 goals, 50 assists) with SKA St. Petersburg. 

"He is really unknown to many people," McPhee said. "A very intelligent player who looks like a No. 1 center. He is looking more comfortable every day."


Biggest potential surprise

In the 2012 NHL Draft, forward Thomas Hyka was selected by the Los Angeles Kings in the sixth round (No. 171) but never signed with them.

He was the third player signed by the Golden Knights -- after center Reid Duke and Shipachyov -- and remained with them late in camp with four goals in his first three preseason games.

"His hockey sense is very good," McPhee said. "He skates very well and has had a terrific camp and been very good in games."



Jonathan Marchessault -- Vadim Shipachyov -- Reilly Smith

David Perron -- Cody Eakin -- William Karlsson

William Carrier -- Oscar Lindberg -- Tomas Hyka

Brendan Leipsic -- Pierre-Edouard Bellemare -- Alex Tuch

Jason Garrison -- Shea Theodore

Nate Schmidt -- Colin Miller

Luca Sbisa -- Deryk Engelland

Jon Merrill, Brayden McNabb

Marc-Andre Fleury

Calvin Pickard

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