By Steve Silverman
McPhee and Gallant in starring roles for Vegas
When looking for reasons as to why the Vegas Golden Knights have been so successful in their initial season, it’s easy to look at players like Jonathan Marchessault, Williams Karlsson, Reilly Smith, James Neal, Colin Miller, and, of course, red-hot goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury as heroes.
All of them have performed above expectations throughout the regular season and well into the third round of the playoffs.
However, these players are all just key members of the team. The heroes of the team are general manager George McPhee and head coach Gerard Gallant.
McPhee has exceeded all expectations when it comes to putting together an organization. While his primary job has been finding the players who could make the team respectable, he has managed to find stars who were either mismanaged or overlooked by their previous teams.
McPhee saw players like Marchessault, Karlsson and Smith and realized they could become not just a line that could help an expansion team hold its own, but one of the best in hockey.
Those three scored 92 goals during the regular season, and another 12 in the playoffs. Those three are at the top of the Golden Knights’ postseason stats list as Marchessault goes into Wednesday night’s third game of the Western Conference Final against the Winnipeg Jets with six goals and nine assists, while Smith has one goal and 13 assists and Karlsson has five goals and seven assists.
“I guess we think hockey the same,” Karlsson said. “We want to play with the puck and try not to throw it away. We take chances. Sometimes we make mistakes. We’re all really confident and pretty good players. Sometimes, you just find that kind of chemistry with people.”
Marchessault and Smith had both flashed their talent with the Florida Panthers prior to coming to Vegas, but McPhee realized they could become stars.
Karlsson’s skills had been on display with the Columbus Blue Jackets, but he did not have the kind of numbers (six goals, 19 assists in 2016-17) that anyone could have predicted would translate into 43 goals and 35 assists this season.
“We were all in the same situation coming to Vegas,” Karlsson said. “We all wanted to prove something to ourselves and obviously to our former teams, too, that we can do some damages in this league. I think for sure that brought us together fairly quick and made us really close.”
As much as McPhee deserves credit, Gallant has proven to be the best coach in the league this year and will be the sure-fire Jack Adams Award winner.
He had proven to be a solid coach for the Panthers, but when he was left by the side of the road by the Panthers (literally) early in the 2016-17 season in favor of short-sighted and humorless Tom Rowe, Gallant found himself at liberty.
McPhee had to make many difficult decisions in building his expansion powerhouse, but hiring Gallant was a no-brainer.
Gallant gets the most out of his players by making sure he has their attention at all times and giving them simple and direct instructions on how to do their jobs.
He does not overcomplicate his situation, but he makes sure his players understand their expectations on an every-day basis.
Gallant played in the NHL for 11 seasons with the Detroit Red Wings and Tampa Bay Lightning, and while he could always handle himself with his fists, he had four straight seasons with 38, 34, 39 and 36 goals. He knows and understands all aspects of the game, and he communicates it well to his players.
McPhee and Gallant are the true architects over one of the most unique stories in the history of professional sports.
Blackhawks have much work to do
The 2016 Stanley Cup playoffs ended with a thud for the then-defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks as they lost the seventh game of their opening-round series to the St. Louis Blues.
A year later, the Blackhawks were the top-seeded team in the Western Conference and were blown out by the upstart Nashville Predators in four games in the first round.
General manager Stan Bowman and head coach Joel Quenneville were both angry and embarrassed, and they promised different results in 2017-18.
They got it as the Blackhawks finished in last place in the NHL Central and the team that has won three Stanley Cups since 2010 did not even make the playoffs.
How will this team respond to reverse their fortunes?
It will be difficult because they have $21 million in guaranteed salaries headed to Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews.
Kane is coming off a solid 76-point season, but Toews was a disappointment with 52 points. However, the bigger problems were defensemen Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, who both had poor season.
The belief here is that Toews can bounce back even if he has lost half a step, while Keith should be able to pick it up from his two-goal, 32-point season. However, Seabrook does not have much left in the tank.
The biggest hope for the Blackhawks is that goalie Corey Crawford can stay healthy, because the goaltending was putrid without him.
They also need Alex DeBrincat to show even more progress after his 28-goal, 52-point season, and for 26-year-old defenseman Erik Gustafsson to develop into a leader and a star.
If Crawford can stay in the lineup, DeBrincat makes progress and Gustafsson becomes the player the Blackhawks think he can be, a playoff return is possible. However, the glory days of championships and parades are now long in the past.
Top 10 draft prospects
Shortly after the Stanley Cup playoffs come to an end and Gary Bettman presents the beloved trophy to the winners, the book will be closed on the 2017-18 season, and the focus will go to 2018-19.
The first step is the NHL draft, and here’s our look at the top-10 prospects. It is compiled from studying reports from the top scouts in the games, mock drafts and the thoughts of the game’s insiders.
Rasmus Dahlin is everybody’s No. 1 choice, and we will have further details on him and the other likely first-round picks in upcoming weeks.
1. Rasmus Dahlin, D, 6-2, 181, Frolunda, SHL
2. Andrei Svechnikov, RW, 6-2, 188, Barrie, OHL
3. Filip Zadina, RW, 6-0, 195, Halifax, QMJHL
4. Brady Tkachuk, LW, 6-3, 196, Boston University, NCAA
5. Oliver Wahlstrom, RW, 6-0, 205, USNTDP
6. Evan Bouchard, D, 6-2, 195, London, OHL
7. Adam Boqvist, D, 5-11, 166, Brynas Junior, Sweden
8. Barrett Hayton, C, 6-1, 192, Sault Ste. Marie, OHL
9. Bode Wilde, D, 6-2, 195, USNTDP
10. Noah Dobson, D, 6-3, 183, Acadie-Bathurst, QMJHL