They got one anyway.
When the Golden Knights selected Marc-Andre Fleury from the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2017 NHL Expansion Draft, the goalie who would come to symbolize and spur on Vegas in its first season and beyond, they found a player who was equally important for the fans and the players to latch onto.
The question is whether the Seattle Kraken, in the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft presented by Upper Deck on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET; ESPN2, SN, SN NOW), can replicate that.
“It really all depends on who’s available and who we can pick, but we certainly think there’s going to be some good players available,” Kraken general manager Ron Francis said Saturday. “Hopefully when they get selected here, we can get them into town and walk out on the stage and they can become the early faces of our Seattle Kraken lineup.”
There are options for the Kraken. With the protected lists for NHL teams except the Golden Knights being revealed Sunday, there are names that jump out as potential Fleury-like faces.
It starts with Carey Price, the goalie for the Montreal Canadiens. Price is a native of Anahim Lake, British Columbia who would slot perfectly into the Fleury role after helping the Canadiens to the Stanley Cup Final, where they lost in five games to the Tampa Bay Lightning.
He’s not the only one. There’s St. Louis Blues forward Vladimir Tarasenko, Calgary Flames captain Mark Giordano, Philadelphia Flyers forward James van Riemsdyk and New Jersey Devils defenseman P.K. Subban, among others.
“With COVID and the flat [NHL salary] cap for the next however many years, it might not be so hard for Seattle to find that guy,” said Deryk Engelland, the Las Vegas resident who was signed as a free agent by the Golden Knights and counted as the Flames’ pick in the expansion draft.
“There’s a lot of teams that are right at the cap ceiling and [who have] guys to sign, so I think they’re going to be able to put together a team that competes. And that’s what you want.”
Whether Vegas and general manager George McPhee were seeking a face, they found one in Fleury, a player whose humble demeanor, talent and chops — he had, after all, won the Stanley Cup three times — combined to become a powerful motivator for a band of misfits, and at the same time he was willing to do countless interviews, reach out to the community, rarely tiring, rarely saying no.
It was a powerful combination.
“We weren’t necessarily looking for a face of the franchise,” McPhee said. “We felt the face of the franchise should be our logo. And we were very team centric. We didn’t name a captain. We tried to have 23 captains. We treated everyone the same. There wasn’t a hierarchy.
“What we were trying to get was some leadership in the players we were acquiring, and Marc-Andre certainly had that and lots of talent and lots of game left. It wasn’t by design, but he became the face of the franchise organically.”
It helped that Fleury was the most recognizable name, most recognizable face, playing a premium position, one that McPhee called the most important in creating a team from scratch. He was known in ways that others who became stars on that team, say William Karlsson or Jonathan Marchessault, might not have.
“He was the only star that people had an idea about then,” said former Golden Knights forward Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, now playing for the Colorado Avalanche. “It was ‘Flower.’ Everybody else, I mean, it’s like people had no clue who we were.”
There’s no question that the veneration, even now, even from players no longer with the organization, is real and tangible. Players from the 2017-18 Golden Knights, the inaugural team that made it to the Stanley Cup Final before losing to the Washington Capitals in five games, speak about Fleury in glowing terms, the admiration thick for what he did on the ice and off the ice.
He set the tone and took the heat.
“From a marketing standpoint, I think they leaned on him a whole lot the first year,” said defenseman Nate Schmidt, now with the Vancouver Canucks. “And it kind of takes the pressure off of a lot of other guys, which is honestly really nice. A lot less pressure, a lot less pressure on us to perform because he’s the guy, but he’s kind of immune to those things, which is impressive, honestly.”
Fleury, of course, had just lost his job with the Penguins to Matt Murray and was left unprotected, allowed to be selected by the Golden Knights. And yet, Bellemare said, he never complained, always worked the hardest, always smiled, helping create a team culture that endures.
“He’s your superstar,” Bellemare said. “You come into a brand-new team so everybody can become a superstar, and it could go really fast that you end up with guys that think they’re better than they are. And you have to be careful.
“But the thing with Flower is that he was our top player, our biggest superstar and he was the most humble guy also. So then whoever comes second or third or fourth or even 19th, whatever your name is, he can’t come and be cocky.”
That made Fleury the face for the fans and his teammates, the backbone and soul of a team that accomplished more than anyone thought they could, and that will be difficult for the Kraken to replicate. But there is a blueprint, and players who would fit nicely into the mold that Fleury filled for Vegas.
“You certainly look at what they did because of the success they had, but as we’ve pointed out numerous times this is going to be different,” Francis said.
Or maybe not.
“I think they can take a lot from what we did, and will,” McPhee said. “And I do believe the pandemic is going to help them a lot. There are GMs who have been through this once on the other side. They may be a little more shrewd.
“On the other hand, the flat cap is going to be hard on some teams and they’re going to be looking for a way out. It’s something that Seattle could take advantage of. We expect that Seattle is going to do very, very well and have a very good, competitive team, right off the bat.”