The mistake was the same but the results could be even worse for the Vegas Golden Knights.
The former face of the Golden Knights franchise Marc-Andre Fleury came to Vegas by way of a Pittsburgh Penguins mistake. Three years on, GM Kelly McCrimmon did not learn from Jim Rutherford’s history and was thus doomed to repeat it.
With some irony, Pittsburgh pushed aside Fleury for a goalie very similar to Robin Lehner: Matt Murray. Murray was a bit surly, unflinchingly honest, a very good goalie in crunch time, injury-prone, and inconsistent in the starting role.
Both Lehner and Murray had not truly been tested as a No. 1 goalie over the grind of a full season. Both had platooned to great success before a general manager felt they were the better value.
Again, sound familiar?
I don’t need to convince Vegas fans that letting Fleury go was a mistake. You intrinsically knew that from the moment it happened. Sure, there was a pesky thing called a salary cap, and Fleury made $7 million, but before Jack Eichel fought for the fortress, before the 2021-22 puck dropped, McCrimmon had a monumental decision.
And he followed the same logical, safe decision-making method as Rutherford before him.
And it produced the same problem.
In your gut, you knew why saying goodbye to Marc-Andre Fleury was a bad move. It was easy to rationalize that Fleury was the goalie who carried the Misfits to a Stanley Cup Final, the goalie who won the 2021 Vezina Trophy.
That part is easy.
But let me tell you why your gut was right, and what GMs keep underestimating.
Fleury, the person.
Have you ever had a job and a coworker made life hell? Or, had a job in which a coworker made coming to work a joy? If you’ve ever made fast and thick friends with a coworker and didn’t mind coming to work, no matter how stressful the job, you know Marc-Andre Fleury.
When the going got rough in 2015-16 for the Pittsburgh Penguins, they got really rough. Since most of you were not yet plugged into the NHL scene, I’ll give you a quick Reader’s Digest version. I was covering that team and it was ugly.
There was an extended and heated locker room “discussion” with several factions speaking out in November 2015. The coach had lost control. Anger wasn’t just bubbling on the inside, it was roiling. Sidney Crosby was at his wit’s end. The “dynasty” with him and Evgeni Malkin was crumbling. There was friction everywhere and between everyone.
By all accounts spoken and nodded, Fleury was the one person who held it all together long enough for Mike Sullivan to arrive. Pittsburgh got through it all. And they won two more Stanley Cups.
Fleury stole at least one if not two series en route to Pittsburgh’s 2017 Stanley Cup.
That’s what “The Flower” means.
Through the second half of that Pittsburgh season, there were admittedly tears in the locker room as word got around. Fleury even planned and funded a local playground.
None of the above is a knock on Lehner. Deleting his Twitter account is more a sign of our times and the frustration of Vegas Golden Knights fans getting their first real taste of struggle. Fleury creates that kind of loyalty, too.
Pittsburgh fans treated Murray in much the same way, despite tossing Fleury out the door a few months prior. I get it.
But on the inside, Pittsburgh was never quite the same. The joy, the verve, the ‘tude, wasn’t the same after Fleury was gone. Struggles popped up, and eventually, things would correct–that happens when Sidney Crosby wears the “C.”
But Pittsburgh has won only one playoff series since. They’ve lost their last four series, not winning more than two games in any series.
Losing Fleury is to lose heart. Soul. Joy.
It makes coming to work on those tough days just a bit harder. A few less laughs, and maybe a few less saves, too. On paper, Rutherford and McCrimmon followed the book.
Keep the stoic goalie who makes less money and can win playoff games, too.
It makes perfect, rational sense except that we don’t live in a perfect, rational world.
Of course, none of this matters to the current Golden Knight’s playoff predicament. Lehner and Logan Thompson will need to be their very best. But as I see the comments pour in via social media, I thought you’d like to know you’re right and I wanted to tell you why.