For whatever reason, from the moment Pete DeBoer was named head coach of the Vegas Golden Knights Marc-Andre Fleury fell out of favor. It was clear DeBoer didn’t think the veteran netminder was enough to get the Golden Knights over the top, and a late season trade for Robin Lehner doubled down on that idea.
I don’t agree now, and I didn’t agree then. Acquiring Lehner gave the team depth in net which I believe is necessary for any team to make a run at the Stanley Cup. Then GM Kelly McCrimmon gave Lehner a five-year, $5M AAV contract that boggled my mind because of how it left the team in cap hell and also gave Lehner the starting job based on three regular-season games and an ok playoffs.
It also created a situation where the entire league knew you would want to move your former starter with two years remaining at $7M AAV. No one was going to stretch themselves to help what is already one of the best teams in the leauge, making Fleury as immovable as the VGK’s early demands.
While I could go on about how I think Lehner’s current contract is a hastily-made mistake of a signing, that’s not the issue here. Lehner has been bad this season, and now he’s hurt. McCrimmon and DeBoer are lucky they fanned on moving Fleury.
Marc-Andre Fleury has been thrust back into the starting role and is seizing the reins with aplomb.
The early-season rotation between Fleury and Lehner clearly showed Fleury was the better goalie. No matter if you went eye test or fancy stats, Fleury was better. It could be tempting to let Lehner continue on in the rotation or even start several consecutive games to break out of the slump now instead of later, but his injury has rendered that point thankfully moot.
Until he shows he’s no longer capable, Fleury deserves to be the starting goaltender for the Vegas Golden Knights by any standard of measure. His teammates love him, they clearly have enthusiasm playing in front of him. I would even call it joy. Fleury’s teammates want to play hard for him because he plays hard for them.
Age a factor? It doesn’t look that way. Even though Fleury’s on the wrong side of 35, he’s still in top shape, is tracking the puck better than ever (Lehner has had major struggles with this so far), and has an amazing ability to keep his head in the game even when his workload is light. All things elite goalies do every game.
Let me tell you everything I need to know about Marc-Andre Fleury and how much he means as a leader and teammate by way of a simple training camp observation.
Maybe you noticed. Maybe you didn’t. During camp this year, the young goalies flocked to Fleury. He would engage them, talking to them and helping them out when he could. Clearly he was invested in them when as the greybeard, he doesn’t have to be. He could just give them a nod or a tap on the pads. He could even just ignore them and prepare for the season. But that’s not who he is. Fleury is the guy who grooms the players who will eventually take his job because that’s what it means to him as a member of the Vegas Golden Knights.
I’m not saying Lehner was horrible to the youngsters. His body language suggests that he just wanted to do his own thing during camp and that’s just fine. He exchanged the customary taps and gestures when the situations called for it. But to compare the two is no comparison at all. Fleury is the guy you want in all situations.
On top of that, Fleury has come into this season with a fire lit under him. He has been nothing short of his best self on the ice, fighting for every puck and leading by his hustle and heart. You don’t have to be in the room to see how excited the team was to mob him off the bench after Sunday’s shutout. Go back and look at the celebration. It’s very clear what the situation is for the Vegas Golden Knights.
To his credit, DeBoer seems to have softened on his initial rejection of Fleury, partially out of necessity as Lehner isn’t available right now. But DeBoer did start the season with a clear rotation instead of just handing the reins to Lehner. Was that forced by Fleury’s salary? Maybe something about Lehner coming out of camp didn’t seem 100% right? Was there still concern about his shoulder surgery? Could be none of those. Could be all of them.
Whatever the case, if Lehner returns and the team goes back to a rotation, that would be a major mistake. I also believe it would cause murmurs in the locker room which is never good. The Vegas Golden Knights coaching staff and front office has to stand behind Marc-Andre Fleury as its starter until his play shows otherwise.
To do otherwise is to proceed at your own peril.