DALLAS — The goal is simple — get off to a good start.
As the Golden Knights launch their inaugural season at 5 p.m. Friday at American Airlines Center against the Dallas Stars, they do so having had every opportunity to put a competitive team on the ice.
The league gave the expansion franchise, which paid a record $500 million fee to join in 2016, an extra year to prepare and get its hockey operations and business staffs together. The NHL provided the largest player pool ever for the team to select from in the expansion draft. The Knights had the No. 6 overall pick in the entry draft. They were allowed to make side deals to acquire other players and/or future draft picks.
Coach Gerard Gallant and his players cite the importance of establishing a winning culture and not falling out of the Pacific Division race in the first month. But the fact is that history does not work in the Knights’ favor.
Of the last eight NHL expansion teams, none produced a winning record in the first 10 games. The closest were the Tampa Bay Lightning, which went 4-5-1 in the 1992-93 season. The Lightning finished 23-54-7.
The Florida Panthers, the most successful team of recent expansion who finished 33-34-17 in 1992-93, started 2-5-3. The Anaheim Ducks, who also began play that season, went 33-46-5 after opening 2-6-2.
But the Knights have their own ideas, buoyed by a schedule that appears set up for early success. Of the team’s first 10 games, seven will be at T-Mobile Arena, starting with what should be an emotional home opener against the Arizona Coyotes on Tuesday.
“There’s a lot of experienced guys in this room who’ve played in the NHL and an experienced coaching staff,” center Pierre-Edouard Bellemare said. “It really doesn’t feel like an expansion team to me.”
Defenseman Luca Sbisa said: “You gotta keep it simple. We have to play with no hesitation and trust one another. Everyone has to buy in to what the coach is saying and believe in the system we’re playing.”
That system is about playing with pace, outworking the opponent and not trying to get too fancy. But the lineup that will look to execute that system was still in a state of flux Thursday.
In a stunning move, backup goaltender Calvin Pickard was waived, which means Malcolm Subban will back up Marc-Andre Fleury, who will start in goal Friday.
Center Vadim Shipachyov is expected to be recalled in time to play after he was sent to Chicago of the American Hockey League on Tuesday. The Knights may also have forward James Neal back for the opener. He was still on injured reserve Thursday, but the move was retroactive to before training camp and he can be activated at any time. Neal was recovering from surgery on his right hand.
Yet questions remain. The Knights squandered 21 straight power play opportunities in the preseason, which saw them go 3-4. Gallant continues to seek continuity for his forward lines. The defense looked shoddy at times, turning the puck over or simply getting out-skated by the opposition’s forwards creating odd-man chances.
But there aren’t any more dress rehearsals. The evaluations are complete. Friday, it begins for real.
“We’re ready,” Gallant said. “We’ve worked hard the last three weeks. I like our team. I like our guys. We’re as ready as we’re going to be.”
Golden Knights at Stars
When: 5 p.m. Friday
Where: American Airlines Center, Dallas
TV: AT&T SportsNet (DirecTV 684, CenturyLink 760/1760, DISH 414, U-verse 757/1757)
Radio: KRLV (98.9 FM, 1340 AM)
Line: Stars minus-230, Golden Knights plus-205; total 5 1/2 OV minus-115.
Three storylines to follow:
1. Eakin returns. Center Cody Eakin played for Dallas before the Knights claimed him in the Expansion Draft. He has arguably been the team’s best player in the preseason and look for Eakin to be fired up to play against his old team.
2. New Stars. Dallas GM Jim Nill hit the reboot button, changing coaches (Lindy Rupp out, Ken Hitchcock returning) and shored up the team’s woeful goaltending with Ben Bishop coming over from Los Angeles and Kari Lehtonen, last year’s starter, as his backup. They also added center Martin Hanzal, winger Alexander Radulov and defenseman Marc Methot (remember him?). The biggest change is Hitchcock behind the bench. The Stars won their only Stanley Cup when Hitch was coach in 1999. They’re hoping history repeats itself.
3. Can ‘Flower’ blossom? Marc-Andre Fleury will start in goal but he’s still trying to find his mojo. He went 1-2 in the preseason, allowed 10 goals and looked shaky at times. Sure, he gave up some fluke goals, but he also got cleanly beat a couple of times. He’s still learning to work with his defensemen and he’ll need to have a big game against Jamie Benn, Jason Spezza, Tyler Seguin and the rest of the Stars’ explosive forwards if the Knights are to enjoy a successful debut.
— Steve Carp/Las Vegas Review-Journal
More tortoise than hare
When it comes to starting fast, NHL expansion teams have struggled leaving the starting gate in their inaugural season. A look at how teams have fared in their franchise debuts as well as their opening 10 games since 1992:
First year: 1992-93
First game: Lost to Montreal 5-3
First 10 games: 1-9
Final record: 10-70-4
Tampa Bay Lightning
First year: 1992-93
First game: Defeated Chicago 7-3
First 10 games: 4-5-1
Final record: 23-54-7
First year: 1993-94 (Mighty Ducks of Anaheim)
First game: Lost to Detroit 7-2
First 10 games: 2-6-2
Final record: 33-46-5
First year: 1993-94
First game: Tied Chicago 4-4 (OT)
First 10 games: 2-5-3
Final record: 33-34-17
First year: 1998-99
First game: Lost to Florida 1-0
First 10 games: 3-6-1
Final record: 28-47-7
First year: 1999-2000
First game: Lost to New Jersey 4-1
First 10 games: 2-6-2
Final record: 14-57-7-4
Columbus Blue Jackets
First year: 2000-01
First game: Lost to Chicago 5-3
First 10 games: 2-8
Final record: 28-39-9-6
First year: 2000-01
First game: Lost to Anaheim 3-1
First 10 games: 1-6-3
Final record: 25-39-13-5
— Sources: NHL, Hockey-Reference.com