Vegas Golden Knights GM Kelly McCrimmon may not be the most popular person in many hockey circles right now and isn’t likely to be on Marc-Andre Fleury’s Christmas card list this December. Fleury’s Vegas tenure came to a rather ignominious end on Tuesday, as McCrimmon dealt him to Chicago – reportedly against his wishes – in a deal, the 37-year-old apparently found out about via Twitter.
The optics on this aren’t great for the Golden Knights front office, particularly for the organization’s first face of the franchise and a goaltender who won the Vezina trophy less than a month ago. And if Fleury did, indeed, find out via social media, then that’s just inexcusable.
That said, just because Fleury’s exit was mishandled by McCrimmon and company doesn’t mean the trade was a bad one for Vegas. In fact, purely from a business standpoint, the end of the three-time Stanley Cup champion’s tenure in the desert offers an example of expert asset management.
On the surface, it goes without saying that losing the reigning Vezina winner for Mikael Hakkarainen, a 23-year-old forward who has bounced between the AHL and ECHL without a sniff of the NHL, is a lopsided loss. However, the real story of this deal is Vegas getting out from under Fleury’s $7 million cap hit.
And to their credit, the Golden Knights did so with exceptional savvy. Though the trade failed to return a significant asset, the team did not have to retain any money or attach a sweetener to unload Fleury’s contract.
No Strings Attached
The importance of the trade’s straightforward nature cannot be over-stated for Vegas. A year ago, the club was reportedly willing to include a second-round pick AND swallow some money to part ways with Fleury. Now, thanks to his Vezina season and the expiring nature of his contract, the long-time Pittsburgh Penguin was moved cleanly, with the Golden Knights incurring no further cost.
This trade stands in contrast to some other moves we’ve seen in recent days where high-salaried players have been dealt into available cap space, but not without the acquiring team being compensated. The Arizona Coyotes, for example, have assumed the contracts of Shayne Gostisbehere, Andrew Ladd, Loui Eriksson, Jay Beagle, and Antoine Roussel while collecting up to eight draft picks for their troubles, including the 2021 No. 9 that landed them Dylan Guenther.
By shedding Fleury’s salary, Vegas gets the entirety of his $7 million off their books, creating almost that exact amount of cap space once Alec Martinez’s contract extension is officially signed. That should be sufficient room to add a backup to Robin Lehner while also coming to terms with new arrival and restricted free agent Nolan Patrick.
It would be a cold, un-feeling insult to Fleury’s contributions to the franchise’s incredible expansion story to make his departure entirely about the bottom line. The Quebec native found new life in Nevada and backstopped the Golden Knights to an expansion Stanley Cup Final and seven playoff series wins in four years. It’s hard to know how the club would have managed this past season without his Vezina form.
And now, that has to be part of the concern in Vegas. Lehner missed time with a concussion last season, and it was Fleury who kept the team afloat in the Honda West division. By losing him, they sacrifice a dual-goalie luxury that might have cost $12 million a year to maintain but certainly came in handy at times. Who they land as a No. 2 option behind Lehner now becomes the biggest off-season focal point (well, that and the Patrick contract).
There will surely be some Fleury fans who, apart from decrying how badly his departure was botched, will lament the piddling return for a future Hall of Famer, and the complaint is valid. But rather than looking at this deal as Fleury for Hakkarainen, it’s more accurate to view it through the lens of timing.
Had Vegas traded Fleury earlier, they likely would’ve had to attach assets and wouldn’t have enjoyed the fruits of his Vezina campaign. Had it been later, the club almost certainly wouldn’t have been able to hold onto Martinez, a core component of their vaunted blue line. It was time for a clean break – even if it couldn’t be handled better.
I may be a Leafs fan at heart (I’ve witnessed their highs and lows first-hand as a Scotiabank Arena employee), but I’m also a veteran freelance sportswriter who loves a good story. And there’s been no better story in hockey over the past few years than the Vegas Golden Knights. I’m excited to be covering the NHL again on the Golden Knights’ beat.