LAS VEGAS – The Florida Panthers' contributions to the wildest story in recent NHL history are widely known. Coach Gerard Gallant and players Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith were all foolishly jettisoned by the Panthers and have been major factors in the growth of a first-year expansion team into a Western Conference champion.
But believe it or not, the Panthers provided even more help.
Deposed Florida director of scouting Scott Luce, who grew up in Williamsville and is the son of Sabres Hall of Famer Don Luce, is in the same role for the Golden Knights. Luce, 48, was one of General Manager Dale Tallon's top confidantes until Tallon was forced into the background following the 2015-16 season as the Panthers pivoted to an analytics-based approach.
Luce was then fired the next season by new the new general manager, Tom Rowe, even though he was responsible for selecting big names on Florida's 2016 division championship team like Aaron Ekblad, Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau. But don't think for a second Luce is gloating. It's all part of the game.
"I don't think there's any vindication to it. None of us that were in Florida came to Vegas and changed anything," Luce said during a break in the Stanley Cup final. "We just do our jobs. We're professionals. We've had a tremendous amount of success here that's been unexpected but we never deviated from any of our past practices. On the scouting side, we took the best practices of several organizations, merged them together and came up with a 'Vegas Golden Knights model'. That was a great experience to go through with this whole process."
Vegas trails the Washington Capitals, three games to one, heading into Game 5 Thursday night in T-Mobile Arena. The teams both took Tuesday off in the wake of Monday's 6-2 Washington victory in Capital One Arena.
While the Golden Knights were playing in the final, Luce and his scouting staff kept planning for the future by attending the NHL Scouting Combine last week in HarborCenter. Vegas doesn't have a first-round pick this year after trading it to Detroit in the February deal for Tomas Tatar.
The Golden Knights slipped to No. 6 in the first round last year when they were hoping to draft first. But they still picked up a strong player in center Cody Glass, who piled up 102 points this season for Portland of the Western Hockey League.
Vegas currently has seven picks in this year's draft – but has 11 in 2019 and nine in 2020 after GM George McPhee finagled several extra selections in expansion dealings. Luce said Bob Loews, the team's assistant director of player personnel, has challenged the scouting staff to make the extra picks count.
"He said that the pro guys did such a good job with the expansion draft that he told us, 'We can't fumble this,' " Luce said. "We're very prideful to dig in and deliver the best assets for the organization. Last year we did that and we're going to continue to do that.
"If anything, this has been refreshing for the guys to have a fresh start and establish something that's unique. Not many people get the chance to start from scratch and build an expansion team so we all feel fortunate."
Scott Luce was a goalie who retired as a player at age 23 in 1992 after a brief minor-league career that included three games for the Rochester Amerks in the 1990-91 season. He said he started to believe the Golden Knights had a chance to go deep into the playoffs around the midseason mark because their play was so consistent from night to night.
"We're a very straightforward team. We're an easy read," he said. "We play the way we play. We took it game by game and we have such great leadership from George McPhee and (assistant GM) Kelly McCrimmon, and Gerard Gallant is such an excellent coach we're fortunate to have. By the end of January or start of February you're realizing that if this keeps up we're going to find ourselves on the right side of the equation and be playing for a long time."
Don Luce, a longtime front-office executive with the Sabres and Philadelphia after his playing career ended in 1982, has become a big Vegas fan as well.
"I think he's more nervous and crazy about the Vegas Golden Knights than I am," Scott Luce said. "He's such a competitive guy, watches the game with some of the grandchildren and he's really excited. He knows how hard it is to get there.
"When he played in 1975 with the Sabres, those guys thought they would be in the Stanley Cup final every few years and he didn't get back until '99. By then he was on this side and his playing career was over. It took him 24 seasons. This is my first chance and I've been in the game almost 20 years. He just told me to appreciate it and value it because you never know when you're going to get back. The game is fickle that way."