Marc-Andre Fleury is a diplomat. During this election season, Fleury is saying all the politically correct things publicly. Privately, he must be seething.
This isn't what he signed up for. He was supposed to be the starting goalie for the expansion Vegas Golden Knights. Those are the terms of the deal was closed between Fleury, his agent and then Golden Knights GM George McPhee, who on July 18, 2018 signed "The Flower" to a whopping three-year, $21 million contract which contains a modified no trade clause (10 team no trade list).
Something happened on the way to heaven.
On May 20, Fleury and the Golden Knights performed the unthinkable act defeating the Winnipeg Jets to win the Western Conference Finals in five games, becoming the third NHL team to advance to the Stanley Cup Finals in its inaugural season, after the Toronto Arenas in 1918 and the St. Louis Blues in 1968. The Eastern Conference champion Washington Capitals defeated the Western Conference champion Vegas Golden Knights four games to one to win their first championship, in their 44th season.
During the summer of 2018, Knights owner Bill Foley and then GM George McPhee vowed to do whatever it took to avenge their disappointment of losing in the Stanley Cup Finals.
During their sophomore season, the Knights finished in third place in the Pacific Division and faced the San Jose Sharks in the First Round of the playoffs. Despite leading the series against the San Jose Sharks 3–1 in the First Round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, the Golden Knights were eliminated in seven games.
In May 2019, McPhee promoted his assistant general manager Kelly McCrimmon to the GM post. McPhee transitioned into the team president role.
McCrimmon made roster changes. His fingerprints were all over the blockbuster trade that delivered sniper winger Mark Stone to the Vegas Strip. Stone starred for McCrimmon's Brandon Wheat Kings team of the WHL. McCrimmon was the head coach, GM, and owner of the very popular junior hockey club.
McCrimmon also made another bold move. In mid-January 2020, McCrimmon fired popular head coach Gerard Gallant and replaced him with former San Jose Sharks bench boss Peter DeBoer.
Right then and there Fleury should have read the writing on the wall. McPhee and Gallant brought The Flower to the desert and now they were out of the picture.
In Februray 2020, the Golden Knights made a major last-minute trade deadline move by trading for goalie Robin Lehner in a three-team deal.
Chicago sent Lehner to the Toronto Maple Leafs in exchange for winger Martins Dzierkals, a 22-year-old unsigned draft pick. Lehner and Dzierkals were then traded to Vegas, for Blackhawks goaltender Malcolm Subban, defenseman Slava Demin and Vegas' second-round pick in the 2020 NHL Draft. Toronto received Vegas' fifth-round pick and retained some of Lehner's salary for helping complete the deal.
When the NHL returned to play in August, Lehner, who went 3-0 during the regular season, was installed as the starting goalie and not Fleury. Talk about ballsy moves. DeBoer and McCrimmon had a hunch about Lehner and it sure paid off as the Big Swede played brilliantly. Lehner was 9-7 with a .917 SV% and 1.99 GAA. Lehner authored four shutout along the way to the Western Conference Finals where the Golden Knights were defeated, 3-2, in OT in Game 5 by the Dallas Stars.
When free agency began on October 9, several NHL teams were looking for a new starting goaltender. It was speculated that Fleury would be traded from the Golden Knights. Vegas would have to eat a hefty portion of Fleury's $7 million annual average value. A trade hasn't materialized yet. That doesn't necessarity mean that Fleury won't be traded during the off season.
On Tuesday, Lehner raised eyebrows when he tweeted that he was about to see the Knights' team orthopaedic surgeon to fix a problem his shoulder. The surgery went well according to the big man.
When Lehner is fully recovered from his shoulder surgery, the Vegas Golden Knights will cast Fleury, the three-time Stanley Cup winning goalie aside.
The Golden Knights currently have an astronomical $12,000,000 invested in their goaltending for next season. On October 3, McCrimmon proudly signed Lehner to a new five-year, $25-million contract despite having Fleury signed for two more years at a cap hit of $7M AAV.
Earlier this week, McCimmon further raised the hopes of his fan base and elevated the blood pressure of his current players when he traded popular defenseman Nate Schmidt and his $5.95M AAV to Vancouver for a third round pick and then used the savings to ink coveted unrestricted free agent and Stanley Cup winning defenseman Alex Pietrangelo away from the St. Louis Blues.
Pietrangelo is now earning $8.8 million annual average value over the next eight seasons, which thrust the Knights over the NHL-mandated $81.5 million salary cap. The NHL is okay with clubs being 10% over their salary cap during the summer months which in this COVID19 pandemic is October-January. However, McCrimmon is going to be forced to take out his chainsaw and cut off a big salary in thee coming weeks in order to get himself to salary cap compliance. The 2021 NHL season will likely begin in mid-January or early February. McCrimmon has some work to do.
It's become a game of duck-duck-goose on the Vegas Strip.
McCrimmon cannot trade just trade any high dollar player off his roster to achieve salary cap compliance. He and McPhee have given trade protection clauses to Mark Stone ($9.5M AAV, Max Pacioretty ($7M AAV), William Karlsson ($5.9M AAV), Reilly Snith ($5M AAV), Jonathon Marchessault ($5M AAV).
Winger Alex Tuch ($4.75M AAV) is the exception. He's a high-demand power forward who will be a 30-goal scorer in the near future. Tuch has zero trade protection and is an option to be traded away by McCrimmon. All World defesneman Shea Theodore ($5.2M AAV) is a wanted man by 30 NHL clubs, however, the slick blueliner is not available at any price.
Earlier this week, Fleury conducted a interview in French only and spoke about the holding pattern he finds himself in at present.
"Yes, I'm ready to share. This year, I expect it will be a strange season. There will probably be several games in a few days, there will be a condensed schedule," Fleury told Le Journal de Montreal. "I think not all teams will have the choice to use their two goaltenders. For this season, it'll be a good thing to count on two competitive goalies. It will give our team a good chance."
The 35-year-old Fleury used to be the face of the Vegas Golden Knights franchise since being picked from the Pittsburgh Penguins in the expansion draft.
Robin Lehner, Mark Stone and Alex Pietrangelo are now the Mount Rushmore of the Vegas Golden Knights. Its worth noting that Lehner, Stone, Theodore, and Pietrangelo are all clients of Newport Sports Management. Four players from the same agency make up $28.5 million of the Vegas salary cap. Fleury is not repped by Newport.
During the 2019-20 campaign, Fleury's numbers dipped to a sub standard .905 SV%, his lowest SV% since the 2009-10 season.
Fleury sounds resigned to the fact that he will be the second option for Pete DeBoer. Fleury will relieve pressure from Lehner when the schedule demands it. Fleury is accepting his new role.
"Yes and no," Fleury said. "I want to play for me. I want to have fun. I don't have many years left in front of me. I know that Lehner is their goalie. I'm more likely to fill holes. They've placed their trust in Lehner. I don't think I can regain my number one spot, but I'm still going to try to fight back for it.
"We play for the same team and we are looking to do our jobs. He wants to play and so do I. We have the same mentality. But there are no bad looks between us. He's a good guy."
The Buffalo Sabres are a team that is still looking to upgrade its starting goaltending.
The Sabres sat idle while the urnrestricted goalie market was in full motion from October 9-12.
Sabres goalie Linus Ullmark is a restricted free agent and will have his case heard by the arbitrator in two weeks. Ullmark can give the Sabres 25-30 starts when the truncated 2021 season begins in late January or early February. I don't think Ullmark is the full time answer for a Sabres team that is looking to lower its shot attempts aganist and a lower goals agaunst average in 2021.
Kevyn Adams and Ralph Krueger are still open to the idea of adding veteran goaltender to support Ullmark and Fleury would be the perfect fit for the Sabres.
That is IF McCrimmon and the Golden Knights can absorb $3.5 million of Fleury's $7 million annual average value. For $3.5 million per season, I will gladly hand the Buffalo crease to The Flower for the next two seasons with Ullmark as his side kick.
Fleury's goalie coach in Pittsburgh was Mike Bales, who is Buffalo's current goalie guru. I like the idea of reuniting Fleury with Bales. The Sabres have available salary cap space and a need at the goaltending position. Fleury is now pissed off and is highly motivated to prove to McCrimmon and the Golden Knights that he still has his championship level skills. Hell hath no fury like a Flower scorned. I'm confident that the Buffalo newly reformed forward group and the defensemen will commit to playing a more responsible system in front of Fleury and Ullmark. If that results in Fleury returning his SV% to the .915 to .920 echelon, this could be a marriage made in hockey heaven in Buffalo where the Sabres haven’t made the playoffs for nine straight seasons.
If Fleury doesn’t latch on with the Sabres, I expect the Colorado Avalanche to take a hard run at him.