Fleury trade by Golden Knights tough decision in pursuit of Stanley Cup

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The Vegas Golden Knights traded goalie Marc-Andre Fleury to the Chicago Blackhawks for forward prospect Mikael Hakkarainen on Tuesday.

In other words, they traded a fan favorite, the face of the franchise since the 2017 NHL Expansion Draft and the reigning winner of the Vezina Trophy voted as the NHL’s best goalie for a player who has appeared in a handful of minor league games.

Why?

Four reasons:

1. Two No. 1 goalies were too many, even though Fleury and Robin Lehner shared the Jennings Trophy this season when Vegas allowed the fewest goals in the NHL (122).

“We definitely benefitted from both of those goaltenders,” general manager Kelly McCrimmon said. “I think that when you look forward to this year, I think that that same scenario might have been a little harder to manage. …

“These are two goalies that are both starters, and I don’t know that there would have been the same appetite to do it the same way from them as players. Neither goaltender, to their credit, expressed any concern or any issue. It’s just, I guess, more my own observations with respect to that.”

2. Lehner, a Vezina finalist in 2018-19 with the New York Islanders, is younger, cheaper and locked up. He turned 30 on Saturday and is signed for four more seasons at an average annual value of $5 million; Fleury will turn 37 on Nov. 28 and is signed for one more season at an AAV of $7 million.

“We were fortunate to have Marc-Andre be available in expansion,” McCrimmon said. “We knew that we were going to have great goaltending as a young franchise, which we deemed to be extremely important.

“But from there, we were always asking the question, ‘Who is our next goalie going to be?’ I think that’s where Robin slots in real nicely. He’s got four years left on his term. He’s at the prime of his career, and that will give us the type of goaltending that you need to win. That’s partly what this decision was based on.”

3. The Golden Knights created space under the $81.5 million NHL salary cap.

Asked if this trade sets up other moves, McCrimmon said, “We’ll use our resources to work to make the team as strong and competitive as possible. There’s never any guarantees you’re going to be able to do the things that you might like to do. There’s a lot of factors at play.”

4. Perhaps most important overall, the Golden Knights are unafraid to make unpopular moves in pursuit of their ultimate goal: the Stanley Cup.

“These are hard jobs, and you have to make tough decisions,” McCrimmon said. “I just really feel it’s always about what’s best for the organization, and that’s what I’m trying to do.”

 

[RELATED: 2021-22 NHL Trade Tracker | Fleury traded to Blackhawks by Golden Knights]

 

This is an emotional day for Fleury, Vegas and the fans. That emotion matters.

Fleury was a huge reason they made the Stanley Cup Playoffs in each of their first four seasons, and he was a huge reason they made the Stanley Cup Final in their inaugural season and the Stanley Cup Semifinals this season.

When he lost the No. 1 job to Lehner in the playoffs last season, he supported Lehner publicly and privately, then came back this season, reclaimed the No. 1 job while Lehner was injured and performed better than he ever had in his accomplished career; he was 26-10-0 with NHL career highs in goals-against average (1.98) and save percentage (.928).

Great ambassador. Great teammate. Great goalie, still.

But everyone should know by now the Golden Knights take the emotion out of it, for better or for worse.

They fired original coach Gerard Gallant on Jan. 15, 2020, even though they were in a playoff spot. They replaced him with Peter DeBoer, former coach of the rival San Jose Sharks.

They acquired Lehner from the Toronto Maple Leafs in a trade Feb. 24, 2020 (after the Maple Leafs acquired him from the Blackhawks in a trade earlier in the day), even though they already had Fleury. 

They traded center Paul Stastny to the Winnipeg Jets on Oct. 9, 2020, and defenseman Nate Schmidt to the Vancouver Canucks three days later, even though Stastny had signed as an unrestricted free agent July 1, 2018, and Schmidt had been a fan favorite since the expansion draft. They needed cap space to sign defenseman Alex Pietrangelo as an unrestricted free agent Oct. 12, 2020.

The Fleury trade fits the pattern.

It might upset fans. It might make players think twice about Vegas.

But at least the fans and players know it’s all about winning, no matter what, no matter who, and in the end, that’s how all this will be judged. How do the Golden Knights use the cap space? Does it help them win the Cup?

“I know for a lot of people this is a day that definitely is filled with sadness, and certainly I share all those same emotions that you do,” McCrimmon said. “And yet I do feel I’m responsible to try to do everything I can to put the best team on the ice.

“That’s what I’m doing along with the people in our hockey operations. We work hard to make good decisions and give you a team that you’re going to be proud of.”

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