The NHL salary cap is harsh and finite. All 32 teams get $81.4 million to spend, and that’s all unless a team finds a way to stash a stary player on LTIR for the entirety of the regular season, of course. In those confines, teams have to build the best group of talent, and depth is the first sacrifice, and so it should be for the Vegas Golden Knights goalies, Marc-Andre Fleury and Robin Lehner, too.
With a Lamborghini and a Ferrari parked in their garage, the Golden Knights goalie situation is both an envious advantage on the ice but a salary cap albatross off the ice. Fleury has one more year left at $7 million and is an original misfit.
Lehner is seven years younger, $1.5 million less expensive, and has four years remaining on his contract.
Fleury won the Vezina trophy.
Lehner is a surly, attitudinal presence who stops pucks with the best.
Fleury is a fiercely happy presence that lifts a locker room and can hold it together. Just ask the Pittsburgh Penguins, who have never been the same without Fleury.
Like chocolate and peanut butter, Marc-Andre Fleury and Robin Lehner fit together. Sure, keep them both one more year–it worked well in 2021, right?
Anything is possible, but the Montreal Canadiens held a mirror to the Golden Knights in a way that no other team could. Montreal exposed the Golden Knights weakness at center, which is a domino that caused other issues throughout the lineup, including a bone-dry top-six group.
The Golden Knights have $12.5 million tied up in netminders.
Want to solve the power play which failed in the playoffs? A first-line center. Want to increase top-six scoring in the playoffs? A first-line center. Want to beat a defensive team that hides behind a wall and a goalie? A first-line center.
If you’re not picking up what we’re laying down with the bright lights of the Strip, the answer to many of the Golden Knights problems is a scoring center…and those cost money which the Golden Knights have tied up in two starting goalies–one more than necessary.
First and second-line centers sure aren’t cheap. From Jack Eichel to Evgeny Kuznetsov on the NHL trade block to David Krejci on the NHL free-agent market, the cost begins at $7 million and quickly rises. Krejci will be a UFA soon and made $7.25 million this season. Kuznetsov is under contract for two more years and has a cap hit of $7.8 million.
The point not to lose: there will be options for the VGK management team, starting with GM Kelly McCrimmon, President George McPhee, and owner Bill Foley.
Normally, an owner wouldn’t factor into such a hockey decision, but Foley’s affinity for Fleury (and the fan’s affinity, too) is a factor.
Newer team. New fans arriving daily. Locker room dynamics. How can you cut out Marc-Andre Fleury, the heart of the team, and get better?
On the other hand, when Foley sits down with his hockey operations department, how can they advocate keeping a 36-year-old goalie over an equal 29-year-old counterpart who costs less?
Sure Robin Lehner noticed the fans’ preference for Fleury, too. Before Game 4 of the NHL Semifinal against Montreal, head coach Pete DeBoer switched from Fleury to Lehner. The reaction was harsh. Lehner fed off it.
“Not many people know that I come to the game four hours early. I get my own bus to come four hours early,’ Lehner began. “I sat for two hours and watched you guys talk shit on Twitter about me to get me motivated.”
Coaches like that surly goaltender attitude because it seems to rub off on the team.
Fleury ran into the same issue in Pittsburgh when head coach Mike Sullivan went with Matt Murray in the 2016 Stanley Cup run, then yanked a red-hot Fleury in the middle of the 2017 Eastern Conference Final after a chaotic 15 minutes.
Credit DeBoer for going with Fleury in the 2021 playoffs. Fleury earned it, and Fleury got the net.
But he also ran out of gas.
“My legs were a little heavy,” Fleury told the TV audience after the Game 6 win over Colorado in Round Two.
That may be the biggest red flag of them all. Can Fleury complete the Stanley Cup journey at 37 or 38-years-old?
Who Should the Vegas Golden Knights Keep?
The answer is a more simple one than you may imagine. Before you draw quarters and create encampments to go to war for your goalie, the situation doesn’t need to be decided internally.
No, the situation can be settled using external forces, notably the NHL trade market and which goalie will draw a better return.
Will teams give the Golden Knights valuable pieces for Lehner? Perhaps a defenseman to replace Alec Martinez? Maybe something akin to a second-line center?
Or will the Golden Knights get a better return by moving Fleury and salary for a couple of draft picks?
Pittsburgh sure wanted Fleury back last offseason, but that was with a different GM in Pittsburgh who appreciated and valued the history between Fleury and the Penguins core.
We don’t know if the new guys in Pittsburgh, including GM Ron Hextall, are there to turn the page or first salvage what’s left before beginning anew in a couple of years.
There is word Pittsburgh would like a playoff experienced goalie behind Tristan Jarry. Well, who better than old friend Marc-Andre Fleury? And if not Las Vegas, what better city for the Flower than Pittsburgh?
So, you can argue, Fleury! Lehner! But the truth is both are No. 1 goalies, and the team will do well with either next season. The decision should best be made by the more fitting return.
And that’s who goes.