The face of the franchise. The darling of the Vegas Golden Knights loyal fans. iPhone commercial star. And now, all but certainly on his way out of town. Does a Marc-Andre Fleury buyout make sense?
When it comes to the Vegas Golden Knights and Marc-Andre Fleury, I think any VGK fan can see what’s coming. Both the player and agent are saying all the right things about wanting to stay, and on some level, there’s truth. But there’s also the reality, both economic and political.
From the moment he was selected in the expansion draft three years ago, Fleury has been the face of the organization for the Golden Knights. He’s been everywhere from billboards to iPhone commercials as he led Vegas to the Stanley Cup Final in its first season and to three consecutive playoff berths. No player was more loved, and Fleury seemed to relish the role. His career reinvigorated, things were good.
Then the dominos began to fall, one at a time. First, Fleury and the Golden Knights slumped, and in a surprise move, Gerard Gallant was fired as head coach. Pete DeBoer took over on January 15, 2020. The Golden Knights were in a rut, having lost four in a row and sitting outside the playoff picture. Fleury was saddled with some of the blame for middling numbers, justifiably so. He had not had the type of season that would cover the mistakes made in front of him.
After DeBoer took over, Fleury improved as the team started to win again. Down the stretch, the Golden Knights surged, and Fleury’s stats did the same.
At the trade deadline, Vegas acquired Robin Lehner from Chicago. Lehner came in on an expiring contract and barely removed from a Vezina-nominated campaign with the New York Islanders. He also won three straight games (although I’ll point out only one against a then-playoff caliber team).
Then came the pause.
As the NHL decided on its plan to resume, it became a bit more clear that DeBoer planned on a competition for the starting role. DeBoer did say the right things about both goalies having a chance, but it seemed clear Lehner was his choice and only had to fulfill the requirements of winning a few starts, which he did. Keep in mind, hiring a new coach means no prior loyalties to anyone, including Fleury.
With Lehner installed as the starter, the Golden Knights made the Western Conference Final. For many teams getting to the WCF and being one of the last four standing is a tremendous accomplishment, yet for this VGK team, it can’t help but feel like a disappointment in a year when they seemed to be the deepest and most talented team in the West if not the NHL.
It doesn’t take a capologist or a hockey ops veteran to realize that backup goaltenders don’t carry a $7M cap hit. Lehner has been anointed the starter moving forward, and that’s the decision. After reports surfaced of a handshake 5-year/$5M per agreement during the playoffs, the writing on the wall was now highlighted as well. Now the posturing happens.
During the playoffs, Fleury’s agent Allan Walsh posted – then took down – a shot of him run through by a sword in the back. The name on the sword? DeBoer. While Fleury asked for it to be taken down, the message was sent from his camp. Now Fleury and Walsh are saying the right things about wanting to stay, and there is some truth in that. It’s hard to leave a team you helped build from expansion and one where you’re so loved. But at this point, Fleury staying is all-but-impossible unless Lehner decides to leave in free agency. If that happens, this will be one of the most awkward summers since high school for everyone involved.
The reason for saying and doing the right things is to show that Fleury is a team guy. Make him attractive in a trade scenario. If you’re going to spend the money to bring him in and flip some assets to do so, you want to know you’re getting someone who wants to play for you and is going to be a good teammate.
As important as it is for Vegas to get something in return for Fleury if they can, other teams know that the price can’t be that high. If the Golden Knights are to make a splash in free agency with Alex Pietrangelo, Torey Krug, or another big name, they’ll need cap room to do it. That means not only shedding Fleury’s salary but also bringing back limited or no real cap dollars. Few teams will have that type of cap space, the willingness to bring him in at that price, and the assets to part with for the return.
Now the Golden Knights can make it more palatable to a team with cap room by retaining some salary. That could invite someone to bite, perhaps an Ottawa Senators team. There could be other suitors looking for a veteran goalie, but not looking for the veteran salary. Enter the concept of a buyout.
If you had asked me last week about a Fleury buyout, I’d have downplayed the possibility. What a difference a week makes. With Henrik Lundqvist being bought out by the New York Rangers, I think this signals that teams around the league are not willing to part with assets for a veteran goaltender. The Rangers were over a barrel and likely would have taken not much in return if it meant not buying him out. But here we are, Lundqvist is no longer a Ranger after 15 years on Broadway.
Call it another obvious sign, but it seems more likely that this is the path the Golden Knights will end up taking. According to CapFriendly, a Fleury buyout breaks down as follows:
Fleury has two years remaining with an actual cash outlay of $12.5M. The buyout would stretch over four years at $2.08M per year, a total of $8.33M through the 2023-24 season. Unfortunately for Vegas, that $7M cap hit doesn’t disappear but reduces to $2.583M next season, $3.083M for 2021-22, and $2.083M for the remaining two years. A Fleury buyout saves Vegas $4.1M in year one and $3.9M in year two on the cap.
The extra room helps but not as much as clearing out the contract entirely. Vegas still has to actively clear out some room on the roster if they’re going after a big fish. The bottom line is a buyout helps more than hanging onto Fleury but is a less-than-perfect answer to a tough question.