So many things had to fall perfectly into place for the Vegas Golden Knights to be this good in their first NHL season. A lot of them were unpredictable, like Marc-Andre Fleury playing the best of his career at 33, William Karlsson going from a guy who scored 15 goals over two seasons to a guy who scored 43 in one, and Deryk Engelland transforming from slow-footed enforcer to one of the league’s better all-around defensemen.
One of the most important developments that made Vegas so good this year wasn’t surprising at all, though, and it’s brought the Knights back to even against the Jets in the Western Conference Finals, after a 3-1 win in Monday’s Game 2 in Winnipeg.
We really should talk about Jonathan Marchessault, the tiny winger whose career rocket ship ride has helped the Knights get this far.
Marchessault scored twice on Monday, both times showing how silky he can be around the net and then finishing with flair. His first:
On his second goal, Marchessault wasn’t really invisible before he took a pass from Reilly Smith on an odd-man rush, but it looked like it on TV. He bided time on the right wing, far away from anyone in a Winnipeg jersey. When Smith picked up the puck out of a little give-and-go game with Karlsson, Marchessault finally appeared at the bottom of the screen.
Smith and Marchessault easily outraced the three Jets who had a chance to stop them. Marchessault took Smith’s pass, deked Hellebuyck with one move, and finished:
Marchessault is one of the smallest players in the league. But he has game-breaking speed, smooth hands, and a sensitive nose for the net. His 27 goals and 75 points in the regular season only trailed Karlsson for the team lead. He’s now up to six and 15 in the playoffs, both team highs. Fleury’s kept Vegas in every game with superior goaltending, but Marchessault’s done as much as anyone to make sure it hasn’t gone to waste. .
The Knights got Marchessault in what’s turning out to be one of the more lopsided transactions of the salary cap era.
Marchessault has never been this good before. He’s on a team that doesn’t still have a lot of high-end scoring talent and gives him plenty of power-play and top-six minutes. Part of it might come from his chemistry with Smith, the center who set up his second goal in Game 2. Neither have put up great five-on-five numbers without the other on the ice this season, but when they were out together (often, as they were linemates), the numbers say the Knights were dominant puck-possessors.
Maybe Marchessault and Smith work so well together because they’re comfortable with each other. Marchessault was a 30-goal scorer for the Florida Panthers in 2016-17, the first year he played anything close to a full slate of NHL games. He was 5’9 and 26 then, and he he was playing for his fourth organization in as many years. Smith was his teammate last year.
The Panthers didn’t trust Marchessault enough to protect him in the Knights’ expansion draft. Worries over his defense and a bad plus/minus rating reportedly played a role in that. Still, he’d just scored 30 goals and was making less than $1 million per year. That Marchessault would be a good NHL player in 2018 wasn’t much of a question.
The Panthers were perfectly cool with Vegas making him their pick from Florida, so long as the Knights would trade for a player the Panthers didn’t want anymore.
That player was Smith, who’d just finished his least productive season of the last four and was about to start costing the Panthers a $5 million cap hit over five years. Florida happily shipped him off to Vegas and lost Marchessault, and the Knights reaped the spoils.
Maybe you think the Knights’ greatest theft was Karlsson, because he’s scored so many goals after the Blue Jackets let him go. But Karlsson has been, in large part, Vegas getting lucky. Nobody could’ve reasonably predicted he’d be this good.
Marchessault was a valuable young talent in plain sight, and Vegas grabbed him and a top-six center for pennies on the dollar. Danny Ocean would be proud.
This has already worked out like a dream for Vegas.
Maybe the Knights will win the Stanley Cup this year. Whether they do or not, they’ve seen enough of Marchessault to give him a six-year, $30 million extension.
He and Smith will have plenty more shots to win together.