It’s been reported that the Chicago Blackhawks might attempt to woo Marc-André Fleury away from the Vegas Golden Knights this offseason. While a case can be made that supports the move for both of those cities, hearing that this future Hall of Famer is available should mean that Kyle Dubas is actively inquiring for the sake of his Toronto Maple Leafs.
Although it can often seem as such, this is not to suggest that every available player has to be linked to Toronto. However, if Dubas is going to continue seeking out veterans for their lineup, adding a 36-year-old goaltender coming off his best statistical season to date might not be far-fetched.
It also seems rather clear that the relationship between Frederik Andersen and his current club isn’t as strong as it once was. Besides, rather than negotiating with a netminder yet to accomplish anything worth mentioning, acquiring one that’s far more proven would work in Toronto’s favour.
Athletes Age Differently
First and foremost, this is not another proclamation that the Maple Leafs are failing due to a lack of senior leadership. The suggestion here isn’t that they need players like Joe Thornton or Nick Foligno to reach new heights. Clearly, they’ve tried that and it didn’t go as was anticipated.
Yet, what’s important to consider is that it’s a reliable trend to witness goalies age better than their colleagues when it comes to positional effectiveness.
It’s not uncommon that the best-performing goaltenders are older than the most productive players throughout that same year. For instance, the top five goalies with the most wins in 2020-21 were an average age of 28.6. Fleury was one of them. Whereas last season’s scoring leaders were expectedly younger, at a mean of 25.2. That same pattern has persisted for six years in a row and counting.
Rather than fixating on physiology, this is simply an intriguing factor to reflect on when it comes to gauging the potential impact of older goalies.
Sharing the Spotlight
How could one have ever suspected Fleury would be on the trade block at this point in his career, following a season in which he went 26-10-0, with a 1.98 goals-against average (GAA), a .928 save percentage (SV%), and six shutouts? Simply stated, that’s exactly why.
Prior to Fleury enjoying his Vezina Trophy-winning run this past year, the Golden Knights had inked Robin Lehner to a term longer than what remained of Fleury’s. Despite their efforts to neutralize the topic since the two began to share the crease, all signs have continually pointed to a plan that includes Lehner taking over the starting role. At the very least, they would pack a solid one-two punch.
Well, that storyline shifted throughout 2020-21, when Fleury played his way into becoming the obvious go-to as their No. 1. It allowed him to achieve at the level he did, thereby elevating his personal value. Fleury was also a major factor in helping the Golden Knights reach the Conference Finals.
“He had an incredible year,” Vegas coach Peter DeBoer said. “We wouldn’t have had the record we had; we wouldn’t be here without the year he had. You have to take your hat off to him. He faced some adversity there last year (losing playing time after Robin Lehner was acquired in a trade). Instead of laying down, he showed up in camp and fought and battled. Turned it into what I think should be a Vezina Trophy.”
Yet, in what turned out to be the series-deciding game against the Montreal Canadiens with a trip to the Final on the line, Vegas turned to their No. 2. Despite it having only been Lehner’s third postseason start throughout that entire run, as well. Need any further evidence to support who they prioritize?
Lehner isn’t going anywhere at the moment. He has proven what he can do and maintains an obvious drive to achieve more. Almost seven years younger than Fleury, it makes sense for the Golden Knights to infuse Lehner into their future.
With all that said, being that Fleury has only one year remaining on his current contract, now is the ideal time to extract the highest possible return for his services if there are no plans to extend him. Something that the Maple Leafs should have given more serious consideration to with regards to their goaltending situation.
Placing All the Pieces
First off, Andersen and Toronto need to collectively decide to go their separate ways. While re-signing the former all-star in the meantime could still result in a trade scenario at some point, why prolong the inevitable?
Jack Campbell swooped in and stole the starter’s spot last season. Therefore, spending too much time mulling over where Andersen fits into the bigger picture is a waste of time for all involved. Even if they are looking for a 1A/1B type of scenario, the Maple Leafs might as well upgrade if that’s the plan.
Obviously, this lineup hasn’t reached its potential with Andersen controlling the crease. No, that’s not a knock on his efforts. There’s simply enough of a sample size to indicate that he just might not be the right fit to help this franchise reach new heights.
Campbell, on the other hand, performed well beyond expectation while maintaining a steady presence the whole way through. Despite their postseason failure, Campbell’s .934 SV% and 1.81 GAA weren’t the problem. He should be granted every opportunity to ride along with this roster.
Perhaps a more complementary counterpart could be of benefit. Adding Fleury into the fold would address any potential skepticism surrounding Campbell’s ability to take over the entire workload at this time. They could split starts and let the results do the deciding on who plays and when.
Fleury joins a contender, Campbell gains a mentor, and the Maple Leafs are left with even less to worry about in their net. It all adds up.
Financial Commitments to Consider
While it sounds good so far, there are financial implications that must be taken into account. It’s not as though either side is in a position to spend needlessly, given how far both have stretched their salary caps. They, therefore, have to be calculated with any moves made.
First off, with news that Andersen is anticipating a raise, that means Dubas would have to commit to more than his previous salary of $5 million per season to retain his talents. Fleury is already signed for $7 million and that difference becomes quite negligible when you consider the upgrade he offers.
Meanwhile, as Dubas continues to round out his roster this offseason, every new agreement chips away additional cap space. However, if a trade does transpire between the two, whoever Vegas acquires in return will surely be taking their salary with them when they leave Toronto. Thus, it could just be an equal transfer of funds.
Trade Bait Potential
A spot could open up on the left side of Vegas’ top defensive pairing if Alec Martinez decides to sign elsewhere this summer. He is an unrestricted free agent (UFA) and has earned the right to hit the open market. If that is what transpires, though, the Golden Knights would have to find a suitable replacement to skate alongside Alex Pietrangelo. They are positioned to compete, not rebuild.
Luckily for them, the Maple Leafs might have the perfect fit to offer up. With rumours circulating that Morgan Rielly is on the trade block, he could make up half of what turns into a rather straightforward hockey deal that works out for both sides.
Rielly would fulfill the void Martinez leaves behind while elevating Vegas’ blue line by being there. Although both produce in similar ways offensively and log well over 20:00 per night, Rielly’s possession metrics set him apart. Martinez achieved a Corsi for percentage of 49.7 last season, while Rielly fared far better at 55.5. The best of his career, in fact.
As a bonus, while Martinez is seemingly playing through his peak, Rielly owning more than a six-year age advantage between the two suggests he still has plenty of time to progress among the top defensemen in the league.
Seeking Immediate Returns
Fleury only has one more year remaining on his current contract. After which, he becomes a UFA. In most cases, that type of information has to factor into the value associated with the respective player and any potential trade’s return. If a deal results in only a single season’s worth of service, that has to be considered.
Fortunately, this becomes rather moot for the Maple Leafs at the moment. Their focus needs to be more heavily fixated on winning now, not worrying too much about what happens next. Vegas is also in a position where they are looking to contend.
Coincidentally, if it were to be Fleury and Rielly involved in a swap, the same free agency stipulation would exist for each side as both players are due for renewal by the conclusion of 2021-22.
While it’s reassuring to have security in place for a more prosperous future, these two clubs have created realities that force emphasis on immediate results. As such, they need to live within the confines of the expectations they’ve built up around them.
Despite failed results of late, Toronto is still looking through the window they constructed with the hope of peak success blowing through. Although much of their core is in place for at least a few more seasons, now is the time for them to reap the rewards of their planning.
Acquiring an award-winning goalie should be something every franchise sets out to accomplish. Especially those poised to reach new heights, yet seemingly missing a key piece. Having failed to make any sort of meaningful postseason push in nearly 20 years, and with one of the most prolific lineups in the league, now’s the time for the Maple Leafs to do more.
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Although adding a proven veteran presence throughout the rest of their roster has yet to pay off, perhaps doing so between the pipes can yield more favourable results.
Toronto needs to watch Andersen walk, stopping only to hold the door open for Fleury.