It’s happened to him before. Marc-Andre Fleury has been cast aside in favor of a younger goaltender, this time Robin Lehner. Last time in Pittsburgh, it was Matt Murray. But the Penguins knew Fleury was going to be an attractive target in the upcoming expansion draft and held onto him, leading to his selection by the Vegas Golden Knights. Will the Knights now do the same? Can they actually play the entire 2020-21 season with Fleury and Lehner wedged into the goal crease?
In short – how long will Marc-Andre Fleury remain happy behind Robin Lehner?
We know there’s discontent here. Your agent doesn’t tweet out a photo of you with a sword running through your back bearing the name of your head coach without your knowledge and/or consent.
Want proof? If your agent were to issue that type of statement and it really upset you, you’d change agents. Plus Fleury has been with Allan Walsh for so long it’s hard to imagine those two not being in lockstep on messaging. But as much as Fleury is going to say and do the right things, that’s why you have an agent. He or she is able to deliver messages to management without it being personal. It also allows what the law calls plausible deniability.
Just reading between the lines, it appears Fleury has not been happy with the coaching change as it pertains to his playing time. What athlete is ever happy about losing a starting gig? But politics aren’t the only thing at play here.
Let’s start with the most obvious and most talked-about elephant in the room. Marc-Andre Fleury is slated to be the backup this season. That wouldn’t be an issue if Fleury didn’t make a whopping $7M a year for the next two years. But that salary could easily net you three more players (or more) of an NHL caliber. Probably even one really good one and a couple of depth guys.
Heck, you could even get an NHL-caliber backup in that role behind Lehner if you’re not comfortable with Oscar Dansk yet. Given that Dansk was the player they chose to introduce the new Henderson Silver Knights jerseys, that tells me they see him as a Henderson fixture in year one.
But wait, didn’t VGK GM Kelly McCrimmon already say the team’s goaltenders moving forward are Fleury and Lehner? And isn’t Lehner having shoulder surgery?
Yes to both. But there’s also more to both.
There’s Only One Net… and More Money
It appears that Vegas is hedging its bets here. Clearly Lehner is the favored son over Fleury for head coach Pete DeBoer. But while McCrimmon said that Lehner should be ready for the start of training camp off his shoulder surgery, what happens if he’s not? Having Marc-Andre Fleury on the roster solves the problem. He’s a capable starter and fan favorite. Stashing Lehner on LTIR saves you $5M in cap room and allows you to start the season with a cushion. It also gives you time to shop Fleury. Teams will find that the solution they signed isn’t working, or an injury derails a team’s plans. Things happen, and if Fleury could end up in a situation where a team needs a starter and could flip another asset back to the VGK so much the better.
If Lehner is healthy enough to start the season and Fleury is second fiddle, regardless of what McCrimmon says it’s not a good situation for the team to have $12M tied up in its goaltenders. In fact, that $7M cap hit ties Fleury for the fourth-highest hit in the league with Tuukka Rask. Lehner’s $5M hit ties for 13th overall in the league. While it’s not quite the Montreal Canadiens $14.85M cap hit between Carey Price and Jake Allen, the Habs also have only one player making more than $5.5M on his cap hit (Shea Weber).
Without getting into the weeds here, it’s too much money in goalies. Especially considering Fleury makes more than every starting goalie in the league not named Price, Rask, Andrei Vasilevskiy or Sergei Bobrovsky.
Back In The Day
If we look back at the situation when Fleury was in Pittsburgh, he sat behind Murray for over a year. Make no mistake, Fleury will put the team first and be a good citizen. He says and does the right things. Fleury only had two appearances (one start) in the 2016 Playoffs when Murray became a household name and led the Pens to victory out of nowhere. Yet when he was called upon to take the reins back from Murray in the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs, he did an incredible job until Murray’s return in the middle of the Eastern Conference Final against the Ottawa Senators.
In fact, if you go back and read this article from the start of the 2017 playoffs without context, you could be forgiven if you imagined it was written recently. Familiar themes from last year: a rough start to the season, losing his starting job, teammates still love him, people say they never lost confidence in his ability.
From the article:
“In the month of March, we played 16 games in 31 days,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. “We relied on both of them through that process. The fact we were able to share [goaltending] duties really helped our team in that condensed schedule down the stretch. Marc was a big part of that. He’s a great goaltender. He’s a terrific kid, he’s a great competitor, he’s a good pro. He’s a great teammate.”
Replace Sullivan with Pete DeBoer. Or McCrimmon. Or anyone on the Golden Knights staff.
Fleury played 15 games, won nine, and ended up earning his third Stanley Cup – but was a spectator for the Final against Nashville.
They couldn’t have done it without him.
Now Vegas finds itself in fantastic-yet-terrible situation of having two top shelf starters. The contract given to Lehner clearly indicates he’s the man for the VGK going forward. Will the financial gap be a cause of friction? How much of an issue will playing time become?
We know that Fleury is the man while Lehner recovers from shoulder surgery, however long that may be. It doesn’t make sense to move Fleury when you might need him to carry the load initially. And as the 2017 Penguins found, he can be an invaluable insurance policy. So it makes sense the Golden Knights will say they want to keep both players. Plus, the Seattle Kraken will be making selections in the expansion draft and if Vegas can somehow afford to keep him all season Fleury might once again be starting a new franchise.
But Fleury will be 36 when this season begins. His contract has two seasons left on it, and after that he’s clearly due for a salary reduction. This off-season hasn’t been kind to older goalies, with names like Jimmy Howard, Craig Anderson and Ryan Miller wondering if they’ll play another NHL game. Expect that trend to continue in the cap crunched world. Fleury does have a leg up in that he has more Cups than those three put together. And he seems to be finding ways to defy everyone just when it appears his game is going to drop off for good. Finally, Fleury sits on 466 career wins and if he’s going to get to 500 he has to play games.
History tells us Fleury will go along with things and put on a happy face regardless of how he feels personally. The real question is how long it lasts.