Life is a funny thing in the eyes of Marc-Andre Fleury.
The Pittsburgh Penguins took a then-18-year-old Fleury with the No. 1 pick in the NHL Draft on June 21, 2003. He remembers suiting up his rookie year, on a bad Penguins team, playing with a guy named Mario Lemieux. The Lemieux era turned into the Crosby-Malkin Era. He had it made.
Three Stanley Cups and 14 solid years later, Fleury found himself on a draft stage again Wednesday. This time as a 32-year-old netminder going from the best team in the NHL to the one with an uncertain immediate future.
“I’ve had a lot of time to think about it,” Fleury said Thursday, donning the “storm gray” Golden Knights jersey. “I’m good.”
Fleury has been tabbed the face of the franchise the moment his name was linked to the Golden Knights. He spent the better part of a decade as the building block for the Penguins’ revival.
For the past few seasons, he’s sat on the sidelines, watching 23-year-old Matt Murray stonewall teams to back-to-back titles. Fleury knew if Pittsburgh wanted to reach the success it’s obtained, he had to take a back seat. He was the ultimate teammate. If you’re in need of proof, reactions from Penguins players on how beloved he was in the Steel City speaks volumes.
Now, he gets a second chance in Sin City.
“Obviously, they couldn’t keep me and Matt forever,” he said. “I think it’ll be a challenge to make us successful right away. Hopefully we improve quickly and fix things up early on. Really looking forward to it.”
Fleury said he’s at peace with Pittsburgh’s decision. He and his wife have begun house hunting, and he was even looking at Golden Knights merchandise for his 2- and 4-year-old girls inside The Armory, the team’s store inside T-Mobile Arena, on Thursday. Roots are about to be planted for the Fleurys.
If Fleury needs help getting around town, Las Vegas resident and new teammate Deryk Engelland can help him out. The 35-year-old defenseman, who was drafted from the Calgary Flames, was once a member of the now-defunct Las Vegas Wranglers, the former ECHL affiliate of Calgary.
“It’s a great feeling. It still hasn’t sunk in yet,” he said. “To put this jersey on and to represent this organization ... it’s kind of been in the back of my mind since they announced the team was coming here. Today, it’s a reality and I’m excited to be a part of it.”
Engelland was a much-needed veteran presence for a Flames team that made a surprising playoff appearance. Despite being swept by the Anaheim Ducks in the first round, it was a great experience for a young team.
The situation is almost parallel to what Engelland will expect in Vegas.
“It was a lock for who was getting protected (in Calgary),” he said. “To come here, it’s obviously bittersweet, but it’s home.”
Engelland and Fleury carry some motivation, being the veterans for teams that were cast aside. New defenseman Brayden McNabb is a tad motivated at the thought of beating his former Los Angeles Kings teammates.
McNabb is one of the players taken by a Golden Knights division rival. The 26-year-old blueliner played only 49 games last year, but brings a physicality that will be welcomed in Vegas when healthy.
“It was a bit of a whirlwind,” McNabb said. “At the time you’re told you’re drafted, you want to stay with the team you’re with. You build a lot of great relationships with them but, you know, after having a night’s sleep, soaking it in - especially since last night was pretty exciting for this city - I’m really looking forward to it.”
McNabb said he got a call from Kings general manager Rob Blake one week before the roster freeze went into place, letting him know he’d be unprotected. Those emotions paled in comparison to the feeling McNabb had when he walked onto the stage at T-Mobile Arena and heard the cheers from the Vegas contingent.
“I was nervous,” he said, laughing. “I’m not used to going in front of big crowds without my helmet on.”
Each of these players probably have their calendars circled for their first games against their old teams. Engelland faces Calgary on Jan. 30, McNabb sees the Kings for the first time Nov. 19 and Fleury returns to Pittsburgh for the first time Feb. 6.
That’s a giant chip on everyone’s shoulders.
“You always want to prove your old team wrong,” McNabb said. “It’s extra motivation and I’m excited.”