Since the Vegas Golden Knights‘ expansion draft in 2017, goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury has been the face of the franchise, whether it was on the ice, on billboards, in the media, or in the community. And now, in an unceremonious fashion, his tenure with the team appears over.
On Tuesday, the Golden Knights agreed to trade Fleury to the Chicago Blackhawks, in exchange for minor-league forward Mikael Hakkarainen.
It was a jarring development, bringing on questions regarding the process by which Fleury was traded, and questions about his NHL future. While that discussion will continue, it’s time to grade both GMs on this swap:
Marc-Andre Fleury‘s time in Las Vegas was over the minute that Robin Lehner put pen to paper on a five-year, $25 million contract extension last October. Whether it was last offseason, this offseason or next offseason when Fleury becomes an unrestricted free agent, he was gone.
Committing $12 million to their goaltending was untenable; but, beyond that, the contract to Lehner was a clear indication of preference. To the younger goalie by six years, to the goalie whose agent wasn’t a disrupting force in the Stanley Cup Playoffs via social media, and to the goalie who held significantly less sway in the dressing room.
It’s like how Jonathan Marchessault told me recently: “When you have a guy around like Fleury, I mean, he’s been around. He’s a future Hall of Famer. It’s like every time we did something, we’d say, ‘Hey Flower, is this OK for you?’ and if he says ‘no’ then we’re going to change it. So we were lucky enough to have that much experience and that many Cup rings. It’s hard to argue with a guy like that.”
You think there weren’t elements of team management who didn’t like that influence?
The Vezina Trophy last season didn’t matter. The choice had been made, and it was underscored by a need to create the cap space necessary for this franchise — which has had a vampiric thirst for a Stanley Cup since its first taste of the Final in its inaugural season — to finally win a championship.
From a cold, hard, emotionless standpoint, this is a positive move for the Golden Knights. They cleared the entirety of a $7 million cap hit from their books. No sweetener. No future considerations. They found a team that wasn’t on Fleury’s no-trade list, that had the available cap space and sent him on his way.
The next steps are the key to the trade. One assumes with the open cap space, the Golden Knights are going to pursue that No. 1 center the team has lacked during its four years of existence. They started with the star goalie (Fleury), added the star wingers (Mark Stone, Max Pacioretty), added another star goalie (Lehner) and then went after the star defenseman (Alex Pietrangelo). It got them to third round in three of those four years, but never the Stanley Cup itself. Logically, a center is next.
The immediate thought is a run at Jack Eichel of the Buffalo Sabres. It’s not a bad one. The Golden Knights have draft assets, young players on the roster like Alex Tuch and prospects in the system. But Eichel carries a $10 million cap hit through 2025-26, has a wonky neck and has yet to appear in a playoff game, for a Vegas franchise that’s only concerned with postseason success. There will be other centers to target as well, with less injury uncertainty and cap space taken, although not with his abilities.
Then there’s the search for another goalie. Again, the financial commitment to Fleury and Lehner was too much for a contending team that needed to sign players and level up some areas. But it also was the bedrock of back-to-back first-place regular-season finishes and third-round playoff finishes. It was a luxury they couldn’t afford, to be sure, but one that arguably salvaged their season when Fleury posted Vezina-winning numbers with Lehner out of the lineup. Without knowing who they add to the mix, the safety net is gone.
Again, this is the cold, hard, emotionless reaction to the trade … which is the antithesis of who Marc-Andre Fleury is.
His warmth as a person and a player made him the masked face of this franchise. That Vegas is now one of the surging hockey towns in the U.S. can be partially credited to Flower as the Golden Knights’ standard-bearer.
It’s clear they didn’t tell him about the trade before making it. One line of thinking is that by executing the deal before informing the player or his volatile agent, the trade routes were left open and unobstructed. Another line of thinking is that it’s absolutely, utterly insulting to treat a player of this stature and legacy to the franchise and its fans with this level of callous disregard.
It’s a transactional win and a personal failure. And it’s one to which owner Bill Foley — of the “I would’ve had a big problem with it” if Fleury was traded lip service — should answer.
As we grade this trade, the Chicago Blackhawks do not know whether Marc-Andre Fleury is going to play for them next season. Which is wild, because rumors of interest between the Blackhawks and Vegas on a Fleury trade have been bouncing around the NHL for the better part of a month.
His agent, Allan Walsh, tweeted: “While Marc-Andre Fleury still hasn’t heard from anybody with the Vegas Golden Knights, he has apparently been traded to Chicago. Marc-Andre will be taking time to discuss his situation with his family and seriously evaluate his hockey future at this time.”
Walsh put the word out quickly that his client may or may not play in Chicago. Which means that at the start of free agency, the Blackhawks have $594,953 under the salary cap, with $7 million dedicated to a goalie that might never wear their sweater. That’s with three restricted free agents left to sign.
They acquired a player who takes $7 million off of a conference rival’s salary cap number, allowing that team to better themselves in other areas. One assumes the acquisition of a 36-year-old goalie with one year left on his contract is so the team can contend this season, with Seth Jones joining the defense and Jonathan Toews returning. But they let Vegas off the hook without a dollar in retained salary or with anything coming back for the financial bailout. Is that really smart to do for a team standing in your way of a Stanley Cup?
What elevates this to at least a ‘C’ is the chance that Marc-Andre Fleury plays for them next season. He’s a reigning Vezina winner and goaltending — despite the best efforts of Kevin Lankinen — was the weakest area of the team. On the off chance he joins the Blackhawks, they’ll be better for it, obviously. But the timing and the bailout drag this grade down.
One final thought: What’s going on in the Pittsburgh Penguins‘ front office today? What’s the over/under on texts from a “Crosby, S.” inquiring about the availability of the Blackhawks’ new goaltender?