Panthers castoffs coming up golden as Knights have dominated Kings

Vegas Golden Knights forwards Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith (LM Otero/AP)

LOS ANGELES – On the day last June when Jonathan Marchessault learned he would be selected in the expansion draft and go to Las Vegas, he texted Florida Panthers teammate Reilly Smith to tell him.

His friend texted right back: “Me, too.”

Not everyone who donated players to the most successful first-year team in National Hockey League history has seller’s regret.

Matt Murray had already replaced Marc-Andre Fleury as the Pittsburgh Penguins’ starting goalie before Fleury was claimed in the expansion draft by the Vegas Golden Knights and had a redemptive season in the desert.

Forward James Neal became one of the Golden Knights’ leaders – and scored 25 goals in 71 games – but the Nashville Predators won the Presidents’ Trophy without him and are one of the Stanley Cup favourites.

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Even William Karlsson, whose 43-goal season made him the poster boy for the Knights’ spectacular and improbable success, was available in the expansion draft because the Columbus Blue Jackets wanted to keep Josh Anderson, a 23-year-old power forward who had 19 goals in 63 games this season and last year outscored Karlsson 17-6.

But then there are the Florida Panthers – the Panthers who missed the playoffs by a point after they surrendered Marchessault in the expansion draft and discarded Smith, giving him to Vegas for a fourth-round draft pick in order to shed the fast winger’s five-year, $25-million contract.

“We didn’t think in those terms like there would be chemistry,” Knights general manager George McPhee told Sportsnet. “We traded for Reilly Smith because we liked him, but there was risk there because he had a big contract and if he doesn’t play up to his contract, then we’re in jail.”

McPhee needn’t have worried. Smith scored 60 points in 67 games playing opposite Marchessault, who produced 75 points in 78 games. The 27-year-olds, who rarely played together in Florida, gave the Knights an instant first line. And when coach Gerard Gallant moved Karlsson between them four weeks into the season, Vegas’ first line became one of the best units in the NHL.

By the way, Gallant was another Florida donation, absurdly and ham-handedly fired two months into the Panthers’ dysfunctional 2016-17 campaign after the coach led them the previous year to a franchise-record 47-29-9 season and a rare playoff appearance.

Smith, Marchessault and Karlsson have been the best line in the Knights’ first-round playoff series against the Los Angeles Kings and on Sunday scored the goal – with L.A. alpha defencemen Drew Doughty and Jake Muzzin on the ice – that pushed Vegas to a 3-0 series lead and within one win of another historic achievement for the fledgling franchise.

“I knew both those players real well so it was pretty easy to put them together,” Gallant said before the Knights’ 3-2 win on Sunday night. “I knew they were going to be together when I got them here. When George said we were going to get both of those players, I was pretty excited.”

Karlsson and Smith play fast, strong, two-way games and barely say a word. The five-foot-nine Marchessault is an offensive dynamo who backs off defenders with his speed, loves to shoot and never shuts up.

“It just worked,” McPhee said of the combination. “If we all knew the answer [why], we’d all have good teams all the time. Chemistry is an elusive thing. When a group finds it, you just keep them together.”

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Vegas has needed only six goals to build its series lead, and the Karlsson line has just one goal and four points, but the group has been close to dominant territorially, controlling nearly two-thirds of shot attempts when on the ice at even strength.

Their winning goal on Sunday is indicative of how connected and instinctively they play together.

Marchessault lost an offensive-zone faceoff to Adrian Kempe at the right wing dot, but Smith, lined up at the left hashmarks, blew through Kings’ winger Tobias Rieder and beat Muzzin to the puck on the end boards. As Smith was darting there, Karlsson swung unchecked behind Marchessault from the right hashmarks and arrived in front of the Kings’ net just as the puck did. His finish gave goalie Jonathan Quick no chance. Doughty had abandoned the slot in anticipation of a D-to-D pass behind the net from Muzzin.

The whole play, from faceoff to finish at 14:44 of the third period, took four seconds.

“We play fast, we know where we are [on the ice],” Marchessault explained after Tuesday’s optional practice at Staples Center. “We complete each other out there.”

The Golden Knights had these guys at “hello.”

“I’ve been on four teams in seven years; I’m used to [change],” Smith said. “But whenever you go to an expansion team, there’s a lot of news faces. So it was nice to go through that experience with a friend and teammate. We played together, seemed to have some chemistry and it’s history from there.”

“We’re all part of the same situation,” Marchessault said. “The team we were on before didn’t want us. As a hockey player, you want to find an organization that wants you.”

The Knights aren’t giving them back.

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