The Golden Knights have always hated rentals. If a player is available in a trade and his contract expires the following summer, Vegas has a history of extending him or passing on him altogether.
Which makes the Robin Lehner trade on Monday fascinating. He’s set to be an unrestricted free agent on July 1, yet is younger and has been more productive than the incumbent goalie. There’s a chance that the Golden Knights saw a goalie available and decided he was worth breaking their unofficial policy, even if it means losing him for nothing this summer.
But there’s also the chance that it leads to an explosive summer, one that could include a trade of Marc-Andre Fleury.
We’ll start with the fact that a Fleury trade is unlikely. He’s signed for two more seasons after this one at a manageable cap hit of $7 million per year. He has a modified no-trade clause, which allows him to block a trade to 10 teams. He’s beloved in the community, in the dressing room and has been the unquestioned face of the team since the moment he walked through the curtain at the expansion draft three summers ago.
General manager Kelly McCrimmon intimated at his press conference that the impetus for acquiring Lehner was less about Fleury or the future and more about shoring up the backup position. Malcolm Subban had struggled mightily this season, including giving up five goals in three of his last four starts and playing to an .890 save percentage in 20 games this year.
“We weren’t sure with the work that we’ve done to position our team, with the work that we’ve done to build our team, we didn’t have confidence that we were as strong at that position as we needed to be,” McCrimmon said. “If anything ever happened to Marc-Andre Fleury, we weren’t strong enough to win playoff games if we get to that point. Those are hard decisions, but we felt that way.”
Lehner is an obvious upgrade over Subban. And he might just be an upgrade over Fleury, too.
Lehner was a Vezina Trophy finalist last season with the New York Islanders as the league’s top goaltender, and split the Jennings Trophy with fellow New York backstop Thomas Greiss as the goalies who gave up the fewest goals per game. Lehner has a .918 save percentage this season with Chicago, 11th in the league, a year after posting a .930 mark.
Fleury meanwhile is at a .906 save percentage, his personal worst since the 2009-10 season. Lehner is 13th in the league this year with 10.1 goals saved above average, while Fleury has been underwater at minus-6.3. Lehner was second in the league in GSAA last year while Fleury was 25th. By any statistical measure Lehner has been the better goalie for two seasons, and he’s 28 years old, seven years Fleury’s junior.
There are still 18 games left in the regular season and then the playoffs. The way Vegas had split Fleury and Subban in the past, Fleury would project to play a strong majority of them. With Lehner in the fold, the split figures to be closer to 50-50. Then once the playoffs come around, it will almost certainly be Fleury in net.
Why get Lehner at all then? Was it really worth a second-round pick and prospect Slava Demin for a few extra games of Lehner over Subban in the regular season and more peace of mind in the postseason, then thank him as he signs elsewhere as a free agent in July? It might be.
“He's on an expiring contract. That’ll take care of itself,” McCrimmon said. “That wasn’t part of the decision-making process. The decision was improving our goaltending in the stretch drive, improving our goaltending in the playoffs and to complement the work that we've done to build the team that we've built.”
Another point to consider is that Vegas doesn’t have an obvious succession plan for when Fleury does eventually retire. There’s promise for a few players in their system, but no one who profiles as a sure-fire starting goalie in the NHL. If extended, Lehner would be the future, presumably signing for half a decade or more and restarting the Golden Knights’ clock on when a former understudy would need to take center stage.
When the Golden Knights acquired Max Pacioretty and Mark Stone in trades, they came with multiyear extensions in hand. Vegas said they wouldn’t have made those trades without the extensions. The only player the Golden Knights have ever acquired midseason who was not under contract for multiple years or without an extension in place was Ryan Reaves, and they signed him in the summer anyway. If Lehner walks, he would be the first true rental Vegas has traded for in its three-year history.
It’s unlikely that Vegas will be able to retain both Fleury and Lehner this summer. Fleury’s $7 million cap hit is one thing, but Lehner might command that much as well, and no team in the league has appropriated that much of its cap to the goaltending position (Montreal devotes the most — $11.25 million — but that’s almost entirely because of Carey Price’s $10.5 million cap hit). Vegas currently projects to have $11 million in cap space next season, but that’s with just 12 players signed to contracts. Expect the number that would be available to Lehner without making another move to be closer to $5 million.
The Golden Knights created one of the better goalie duos in the league on Monday. If their starter goes down with injury or struggles, they might be in better position than any other team to still succeed. That didn’t come without a price, beyond the picks and players who were shipped out.
On one side, there is the beloved Fleury, who will turn 36 next season and took the Golden Knights to within three wins of raising the Stanley Cup just two seasons ago.
On the other is the newcomer Lehner, who will turn 29 this summer and has played like a No. 1 goalie for two seasons, albeit doing so in a goalie tandem situation in both New York and Chicago.
Having Lehner for the rest of the year and the playoffs unquestionably helps them in the short term, but they’ll be faced with a tough choice this summer. And that choice on who mans the sport’s most important position will have a lasting impact on the Golden Knights.