The Knights’ swarming forecheck can pin opponents for long stretches.
The team’s bond with the city itself was tested early when, a week before the home opener, a gunman opened fire on a country music festival at Mandalay Bay on the Strip, killing 58 and wounding nearly 500. Defenseman Deryk Engelland, who has made Las Vegas his offseason home since playing for the local minor league team in 2003, delivered groceries to the local firehouse. Some players visited the hospital, while others showed up at blood drives. At the opener, the team brought 26 first responders to the ice and in an emotional pregame ceremony gave Engelland the mic. “We’ll do everything we can to help you and our city heal,” he pronounced. “We are Vegas Strong.”
His teammates showed little mercy, texting him panoramic photos of their helicopter ride over the Grand Canyon and Snapchatting selfies from backstage at an Avicii show. Bellemare sulked — and renewed his passport, with an expiration of 2023. That’s good, his mother, Frederique, told him, because it means one day you can live in the United States — and live there for a while.
“I didn’t say shut up,” Bellemare says now. “But I was thinking, ‘This is bulls—.'” After all, the NHL was little more than a pipe dream for the 28-year-old — even his own coaches on the French national team told him to give up on the idea. “You’ll see,” Frederique said at the time. “One day we will be laughing about this.”
A year later, Bellemare helped lead Skellefteå to a second straight title and signed as a free agent with the Flyers. Now the left winger is an alternate captain for the Golden Knights in their wildly successful inaugural season. “So now I’m not just traveling to Vegas, I own a house in Vegas,” he says. “I have a wife and child here. I sometimes have to think, ‘How did my career end up like this?'”
His unselfishness as a playmaker in transition has really stood out, as well. He does a great job of pushing pace, identifying shooters such as Redick and Marco Belinelli and driving toward their defender before shoveling the ball back for an open 3.
They have a wealth of capable defenders after taking 13 in the expansion draft; none profiles as a traditional No. 1, but none is overtaxed either. Then there’s Fleury, a stud goalie who posted career bests in save percentage (.927) and GAA (2.24) in his age-33 season.
Coach Gerard Gallant is a fitting leader for this ragtag bunch. He became somewhat of a meme last season when he was fired by the Panthers at a road game. Cameras captured him outside Raleigh’s PNC Arena waiting for a taxi. Since moving to Vegas, Gallant has downloaded Uber but maintained his simplicity.