Golden Knights’ road to early success in NHL won’t come easy

What was a dream of Bill Foley more than three years ago becomes reality Friday night in Dallas.

Las Vegas’ first major league professional sports franchise will debut with the Golden Knights playing the Dallas Stars at American Airlines Center.

Yes, there have been other firsts for the expansion franchise for which Foley and his partners paid a record $500 million in 2016 to join the NHL. There was the draft lottery. Expansion draft. Entry draft. Development camp. Rookie camp. Veterans training camp. Seven preseason games.

But all of those benchmarks will take a back seat to Friday night. Now it’s for real. The foundation will be laid for a franchise Foley hopes will be in the playoffs in three years and competing for a Stanley Cup in six.

“It’s hard to believe it’s here,” Foley said right before training camp. “It seemed like it was just yesterday we were asking people to put down deposits for a team that didn’t even exist.”

About 14,000 purchased some sort of season ticket plan and T-Mobile Arena, the team’s home off the Strip, figures to be full just about every night.

So what kind of team can the fans expect of these expansion Golden Knights?

General manager George McPhee built a team that has experience throughout, starting in goal with Marc-Andre Fleury, who has three Stanley Cup rings, and Calvin Pickard. He has a nice blend of experience and youth on the blue line with Nate Schmidt, Shea Theodore, Luca Sbisa, Jon Merrill and Colin Miller.

Up front, there are enough guys who can put the puck in the net. Jonathan Marchessault, Reilly Smith, James Neal, David Perron and Cody Eakin have all proven they can produce at the NHL level while Erik Haula, Oscar Lindberg, William Carrier and Brendan Leipsic are young and have the ability to blossom into quality scorers.

Then there’s the X-factor, Vadim Shipachyov. The 30-year-old center was a star in Russia, finishing second in the Kontinental Hockey League in scoring last season. But he has never played in the NHL. Can he put up numbers close to the 26 goals and 76 points he registered with St. Petersburg SKA last season?

Head coach Gerard Gallant’s expectations are simple — come to the rink every night ready to compete and give your best effort.

His hope is his team will have the mettle to hang in against the NHL’s elite while finding a way to beat some of the league’s lesser lights and amass enough points to where they wind up with a respectable record and perhaps avoid the Pacific Division cellar.

“We want good people who will come in and respect the organization,” Gallant said. “When you get good people, ultimately you’re going to get good results.”

The Knights are in a tough division as the Pacific boasts several of the NHL’s elite teams in Edmonton, Anaheim and San Jose. Calgary made several significant moves in the offseason while Los Angeles has new hockey people running its operation and a fresh philosophy.

In other words, every division game figures to be a battle.

The reality is expansion teams usually struggle. And the Golden Knights, despite the NHL’s best efforts to give them every opportunity to be competitive, figure to have a tough go of it in their inaugural season. But they should also provide enough excitement and good moments for their fans to have hope for the future.

Contact Steve carp at scarp@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2913. Follow @stevecarprj on Twitter.

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