George McPhee, general manager of the Vegas Golden Knights, knows a thing or two about putting together a hockey club.
Twenty years ago as the GM in Washington, McPhee pressed the right buttons for the Capitals to finally advance to the 1998 Stanley Cup Final – still the club’s lone trip to the championship round; they were swept by Detroit, the last team to win consecutive Cups until Pittsburgh achieved the feat earlier in the month.
My favorite McPhee moment: A year later, when he punched Chicago head coach Lorne Molleken outside in the grill (mouth) for alleged dirty play by the Blackhawks during an exhibition game. He received a $20K fine – and a torn suit – going on to capture seven division titles while in D.C.
McPhee knows the road in building a franchise, working from the net, then out. While the Knights seem solid with a surplus of selections on defense, I will go against most observers and state why former Penguins standout goalie Marc-Andre Fleury may become a bust in T-Mobile Arena.
What? A three-time Stanley Cup champion who may become the first “face of the franchise” for Vegas, yet fail to serve his purpose?
Although he will be the first Hockey Hall of Fame entrant with the Vegas label attached to his name, Fleury has some present problems that can’t be over-looked. Here’s why:
1) Fleury is getting long in the tooth. I admit that 33 (next season) isn’t that long, yet contend they have been “hard” seasons. Five extended Cup runs add to his mileage, plus he has been plagued by injuries the past two years.
2) Since posting an NHL-best 10 shutouts in 2015, his most recent goals-against average is higher than at any point after his rookie year. Such numbers do not project well.
3) The eyeball test. He shows traits of beginning to “play old.” More soft goals and deteriorating puck-handling skills had me lowering Fleury on my Goalie Power Index (I have to call it something).
4) Fleury is nearly a $6 million hit on the salary cap. For someone who may not complete the season, that’s an extra-big hit that might be better utilized for younger prospects.
Don’t get me wrong. Fleury might be great in “the room,” and is a beloved, cherished figure on previous clubs. But this seems like a vacation spot for Fleury to complete his playing career, not transform nothing into another title run.
Thus, I project Fleury playing 30 of the Knights’ first 40 games, but the numbers should significantly tumble over the second half of the season as a trade or the promotion of a young prospect emerges from the Chicago (AHL) Wolves.
Free agency began July 1, so with a surplus of defensemen from both the expansion draft and amateur draft, trades will definitely be executed.
Who’s staying or going among Shea Theodore, Alexei Emelin or Marc Methot? Will you never hear from them again or will they be a presence over the next decade?
The list of names you need to know – .i.e., players staying – include forwards James Neal and Erik Haula, free agent center Vadim Shipachyov, and defensemen Nate Schmidt and Vegas resident Deryk Engelland.
While some clubs bartered with McPhee, giving up additional players in return for the GM’s promise to not select those the clubs couldn’t protect, McPhee went hard line with Nashville GM David Poile for Neal, a two-time all-star with 238 career goals before the age of 30.
In last week’s amateur draft, Vegas picked WHL scoring leader Cody Class, the sixth overall pick; then at No. 13 tabbed Nick Suzuki among their 12 choices. Both are forwards.
All McPhee needs to do is hire me for public address announcer and we’ll all be ready for the First Faceoff on Friday, Oct. 6 in Dallas. After a game in Arizona on the next night, the Coyotes come to town for the return game in Vegas’ home debut on Tuesday, Oct. 10, to open a seven-game homestand.
The first team from Canada to visit is Winnipeg on Friday, Nov. 10. I predict a national anthem (both of them) appearance by Celine Dion!