Eduardo Razo The Hockey Writers
Former Teammates Relishing New Start With Golden Knights
When the Vegas Golden Knights acquired Marc-Andre Fleury via the expansion draft, he quickly became the face of the franchise. In the early stages of the season, he’s keeping Vegas in games as they’re off to a surprising start. However, it’s James Neal, his former teammate with the Pittsburgh Penguins, who’s stealing the limelight with his offensive contributions.
Instead of reacting negatively to not receiving protection from the expansion draft, both Neal and Fleury have taken advantage of their new starts. The veterans have come out flying, helping Vegas become the first expansion team to win its first three games.
James Neal off to a Hot Start
During his nine-year NHL career, consistent goal scoring has been an accurate trait of Neal’s. He’s averaged 20 or more goals per season since entering the league in 2008. Nonetheless, the Nashville Predators went in a different direction, resulting in the protection of their defensive core.
It’s not often an expansion team can obtain an above-average goal scorer to start their franchise. Furthermore, in today’s NHL, scoring is a premium commodity. Vegas has the fortune of sending out Neal, a goal scorer with a 40-goal season on his resume, to put the puck in the net. Neal has become the catalyst for Vegas’s offense, putting in five goals through three games which included two game-winning goals and a two-goal performance on an emotional night for their home opener.
To illustrate how Neal is influencing Vegas’s offense, here’s a visual (courtesy of HockeyViz) on their even strength attack with him. The sample is short, but the team generates more shots when he’s on the ice. On the other hand, when Neal’s off the ice, Vegas tends to stay away from the net. Their shots tend to come from the top of the circles and blueline instead of around the net.
In a city where they set the odds, Vegas is defying them with their early start thanks to the contributions from Neal, who’s making the most out of his stint while increasing his value in a contract year. Furthermore, he’ll become a hot commodity at the trade deadline due to his scoring. Vegas will come back to earth, and the haul for Neal could entice management to trigger a deal.
Related: Rumor Rundown: Nash, Turris, James Neal Drawing Attention
Marc-Andre Fleury the Face of the Golden Knights
Fleury’s 14-year run in Pittsburgh came to an end after Matt Murray overtook the role as the starting netminder. When Vegas took him in the expansion draft, it obtained a marquee player who’s a former All-Star goaltender, Olympian, and clear number-one netminder. “The Flower” could fall into the background with the likes of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and other star players on the team.
In Vegas, however, he’s the guy now and embracing it. This new chapter in his career isn’t a victory lap, nor is he a prop to bring in fans. The 32-year-old is out to prove that he’s still a number-one goaltender in the league. Fleury has only given up four goals on 107 shots against through three games. The sample is small, but it appears that he will keep Vegas in games this season.
Fleury boasts a save percentage of .963 and holds a 1.32 goals-against average through three games. Also, Fleury has kept some goals out of the net with his 5.55 goals saved above average. As the Golden Knights are still trying to get to know each other and their tendencies, expect him to continue to keep the puck out of the net.
Playing for an expansion team, Fleury will have nights where he faces a swarm of shots. This visual shows the shot rates allowed by Vegas through three games, and it will become a recurring theme. Although Vegas is a feel-good story through the first week, it is a team composed of outcasts. To win and stay in games, they’ll need Fleury to steal some games, which is a task he’s probably capable of doing.
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