Unfortunately, things change, and they change quickly. In a tumultuous season that saw the original head coach fired, the rival head coach brought in, poor play, and a goalie coach fired for seemingly no reason, one controversy stands above. Acquiring Robin Lehner at the trade deadline kicked off a controversy that could potentially lead to the departure of the face of the franchise, Marc-Andre Fleury.
“This was a very divisive playoff [run], In terms of how fans feel about DeBoer and the handling of the goaltender situation.” David Schoen of the Las Vegas Review Journal said.
Where the Controversy Came From
Just before the clock struck 3 p.m. EST on Feb 24., the Golden Knights traded backup goaltender Malcom Subban, defenseman Slava Demin, and a second-round pick in the 2020 draft to the Chicago Blackhawks for goaltender Robin Lehner. At the time, this did not make much sense. Goaltenders, especially former Vezina finalists like Lehner, do not usually move this time of year. The Golden Knights also had some other positions they needed to address, like acquiring another point-producing defenseman, or bottom six scoring depth. Nevertheless, McCrimmon explained their reasoning for trading for a goaltender was that they felt that if Fleury got hurt, it would put them in jeopardy.
Fleury and Lehner split starts from the game after the trade deadline until the COVID-19 pause. When the team came back for training camp in late July, Fleury suffered an undisclosed injury, allowing Lehner some extra days of practice. Fleury came back fine, and the two goaltenders split the starts once again in exhibition and round-robin play. Despite Fleury’s numbers in the regular season and his aura around the team, Lehner got the call-in net for game one against Chicago.
“I went into [training camp] with the idea that if both guys played at the same level, we would give [Fleury] the starts out of respect.” Golden Knights head coach Peter DeBoer said. “We split them through the round robin. Robin [Lehner] played at an elite level, [Fleury] played at a very good level, and we made that tough decision.”
Throughout the playoffs, the fanbase split in two. On one side were the fans that felt Fleury should have been the starter despite Lehner’s numbers. On the other were the fans that thought Lehner’s numbers proved he was the better goaltender. In the 20 playoff games played by the Golden Knights, Lehner started 16 of them. He went 9-7 with a 1.99 goals against average and a .917 save percentage. He also led the league in shutouts with four. In the four games Fleury appeared in, he won three of them. He also posted a 2.27 goals against average and a .910 save percentage (per NHL.com). Based on numbers alone (both regular season and playoffs), Robin Lehner was the better of the two goaltenders. In the later rounds of the playoffs, fans and supporters of Fleury called for Lehner’s head after a loss, despite the losses not being entirely his fault.
On Aug. 22, the day before the Golden Knights were to begin their second round against the Vancouver Canucks, Fleury’s agent Allan Walsh tweeted a picture with his client being stabbed in the back with a sword. On the sword’s name was “DeBoer”. The controversy that had been boiling below the surface had finally reached the surface and was thrust into the mainstream media. Something clearly happened between player coach, and front office. That something may never become public. Despite the players trying to play it off as no big deal, this was a big deal. This tweet showed that something had happened between Fleury and management. He clearly did not appreciate whatever happened.
“To go and ‘poison the water’ like that…[Walsh] knew of something that was going on behind the scenes with Robin Lehner and the Knights,” Schoen said. “If that was the case and Allan Walsh said ‘we gotta do something about this’ that’s the only logical conclusion I can draw [as to why he did it]. Marc-Andre Fleury still could have played. So why go and ruin your chances of any future with them?”
Where Things Go From Here
Will Marc-Andre Fleury be back with the Golden Knights next year? As of right now it is unknown. It is certainly possible, and Fleury did express his desire to remain in Vegas (per Jesse Granger of the Athletic). Vegas could trade a contract like Paul Stastny or Max Pacioretty to make room for both goaltenders. With the next season appearing to take place in a shorter time frame, having two number one goaltenders might prove useful. That way the team will trust whoever is in net that night to deliver and the starter will have plenty of rest come playoff time. Also, Fleury has been one of the leaders in the locker room since the team formed. If history shows anything, removing a leader from a locker room can have some negative ramifications.
“Marc-Andre Fleury has been the face of the franchise and is a tremendous goalie and an even better person,” Golden Knights general manager Kelly McCrimmon said. “He has led our team from it’s inception.
While this is a nice idea in theory, it seems like an unlikely scenario. First and foremost, the Golden Knights’ major issue they ran into this postseason was lack of scoring. In the final 8 games played, they scored 11 goals and were shut out twice. Despite the offensive firepower this team has on paper, they failed to show up when it mattered. The money that would go to Fleury could be used to acquire another forward or offensive defenseman to help with the scoring. Also, if the Golden Knights hung on to both goaltenders, they would have 12 million dollars allocated to the goaltending position (second only to Montreal). That means every game, at least five million dollars of cap space will go to waste. That money instead could go to someone that could help the team and actually play every night. The Golden Knights have some major issues they need to fix this offseason. Having 12 million dollars allocated to goaltending will not solve that.
Moving Fleury’s contract off the books will prove challenging. The ideal scenario would include Vegas finding a team to trade Fleury and his cap hit to and to ask for minimal in return. However, despite his reputation, not many teams will line up to take a 35-year-old goaltender with a seven-million-dollar cap hit without wanting something in return. Teams know that Vegas needs to move this contract for cap relief, so they can ask for more in return. Teams that need goaltenders this offseason will also have plenty of options. Other goaltenders like Matt Murray and Fredrik Andersson are also rumored trade assets this offseason. Both goaltenders are younger and have easier contracts to move than Fleury. Most likely, Vegas will have to retain some of Fleury’s cap hit, give up draft picks or prospects, or take on another tough contract to sweeten the deal with potential team.
The other option is to buy out Fleury’s contract, however this also presents some issues. In order to buy out a player’s contract, the team takes less of a cap hit for double the amount of time left on the deal. In this instance, the Golden Knights would have around two million dollars in dead cap for the next four years. With the salary cap not going up for at least another year, this could hinder their chances of fixing some of their other issues. If Lehner takes the rumored 5 year 25 million dollar deal it would put Vegas back in the same spot they were before.
This offseason will become one that fans will remember forever. Like it or not, some major changes will befall the team in the coming weeks. Despite what Fleury said, there is undeniably a rift between him and the Vegas management. A rift that seemingly came from nowhere.