Back in March, as teams were offering vague plans about compensating their arena workers after the NHL paused the regular season, the Vegas Golden Knights stepped up with a minimum of $500,000 of support from their foundation. More than that, they received a $100,000 pledge of help from one of their players — goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury.
“My family and I hope that these contributions not only help those in need, but also inspire others who are in fortunate positions to step up and find ways to help too,” Fleury said.
This was a starting goalie move. This was a “face of the franchise” move.
Five months later, Fleury is neither for the Golden Knights.
Through Game 2 of a Western Conference semifinal series against the Vancouver Canucks, Fleury has started just two of the Knights’ 10 postseason games and only one of their games after the round-robin. Robin Lehner, acquired at the trade deadline from the Chicago Blackhawks, had played the rest.
“We’ve got a plan with our goaltenders. We’re not going to get into what it is. Nothing’s changed in my idea that both guys are going to play moving forward here,” coach Peter DeBoer said after his team’s Game 2 loss to the Canucks.
But something has changed with Fleury and the Golden Knights. That much is clear. This is the goaltender who had previously started every postseason game in the team’s history. A goaltender they signed to a lucrative three-year contract extension that began this season. On a team that has never had a captain, he’s as close to one as they’ve had. DeBoer didn’t bench a goalie; he sat the guy whose face is on the billboards, the player whose name adorns countless Golden Knights sweaters as fans filter into their home arena.
There was a statistical argument for why Lehner deserved the lion’s share of work. He was the better goalie in the regular season, with an 0.288 goals saved above average per 60 minutes with the Blackhawks, well above Fleury (0.128). Lehner had a quality starts percentage of .559 in the regular season, to Fleury’s .500.
Lehner was lights-out in three starts after the trade deadline, going 3-0-0 and giving up only five goals. Fleury struggled in the regular season, posting his worst save percentage (.905) since 2009-10. There was speculation Fleury’s struggles may have been linked to the death of his father in late 2019. Whatever the case, Fleury wasn’t Fleury.
But when the Golden Knights made their move for Lehner, the trade was clearly portrayed as Vegas solidifying the backup goalie position behind their veteran star, as Malcolm Subban (.890 save percentage) wasn’t cutting it. Lehner was an insurance policy for Fleury, according to the guy who made the trade.
General manager Kelly McCrimmon, to the Golden Knights’ website in February: “We didn’t want to have all the work we did undone because we didn’t have the required depth at the position.”
McCrimmon to the Vegas media: “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.”
McCrimmon to Sportsnet: “In terms of the motivation behind the deal, we’ve done a lot of work to position this team in the best way possible heading into the playoffs. For us, it came down to wanting to be more confident that if anything ever happened to Marc-Andre Fleury, we’d still be in a position to win.”
McCrimmon to the media during the NHL’s restarted season: “We did not feel that we had enough support behind Marc-Andre, so that was the motivation behind the deal.”
From the moment that “support” arrived, something felt off. This wasn’t a seasoned No. 2 coming in behind Fleury, but a goalie who had been a starter in Buffalo and a “No. 1-A” in Chicago and New York. McCrimmon explained this away by saying the Knights didn’t anticipate a goalie of that caliber being available, which is a reasonable justification.
Even stranger: Director of goaltending Dave Prior, an original Knight, was relieved of his duties within 48 hours after the Lehner trade, despite DeBoer saying Prior was still with the organization and “going to based out of Ontario.” Prior told SinBin.Vegas, “They weren’t truthful when they said I returned to Ontario and continued to do my duties, as I was told I’m relieved of my NHL coaching duties and I can go back home and would no longer be doing anything for the team.”
Stranger still, the language surrounding the Vegas goaltending situation started to change in Phase 3 of the NHL restart.
DeBoer started to refer to his goaltenders as two starters, citing the grind of the bubble schedule as a necessity for both goalies to see time. “While there have been plenty of examples of the starter going wire to wire, you’re seeing more examples of guys contributing at different points. Maybe the thought process on that is changing,” DeBoer said. “Maybe it’ll be one guy starting the majority. Maybe we go back and forth.”
Fleury was asked about the “two goalies” thing on July 18. He smiled, as he does. “I just want to win,” he said. “Obviously, it’s more fun playing. We’ll see how it goes.”
Again, look at how the trade was framed, and then look what happened in the postseason. It’s like the Golden Knights cashed in on their homeowner’s insurance before anything happened to their home.
I think given all of this, Fleury came to camp — perhaps even the bubble — assuming he was the starter, and then Lehner was sprinkled in. That’s a logical reading of the timeline. Then the opposite happened. And then you know what came next:
just in case anyone didn’t save it and for future searchability purposes, here is the allan walsh marc andre fleury sword tweet pic.twitter.com/hwKvvczMng
— Alan (@loserpoints) August 23, 2020
Fleury’s agent, Allan Walsh, tweeted an image of his client being impaled in the back by a broad sword brandishing the name of his coach. Which is odd, because we always figured that DeBoer would be an axman.
(An aside: This may have been a sea-change moment for player discontent. Traditionally, this sort of business was done by an agent leaking a complaint about ice time to their favorite Canadian columnist. Now it’s being done by meme. We’ll be disappointed if the next trade demand isn’t issued via a group TikTok dance.)
This image dropped at the start of the conference semifinals, for maximum squeamishness. Walsh was decried by many in the hockey media for having gone rogue. As a proportional response to his player’s benching, this was like squashing some picnic ants with a monster truck.
Did Fleury know about the image before it dropped? I asked him point-blank, and he punted like Pat McAfee. “We’ve been talking, right? I love playing. I love being in the net. He’s been on Twitter for a long time. He’s just trying to protect me a bit,” Fleury said during a news conference. He had Walsh delete the tweet.
(Another aside: Full marks to Eric Tosi, Sage Sammons and Vegas media relations for getting Fleury into a news conference after his controversy, and doing the same with Jonathan Marchessault after the forward made a series of Instagram comments that profanely taunted critics who claimed he was a diver. But memo to Vegas: There are two more rounds after this one. Please pace yourself on these scandals, will ya?)
Whether Fleury ordered the “Code Rapier” isn’t the point. The tweet clearly communicated something he was feeling. It was then addressed publicly and internally between the goalie, his coach and management.
“That’s just outside noise to us. We’re inside the bubble, and we’re in our own bubble inside the bubble. We’re not going to let any of that outside noise get in the way of what we’re trying to do here, which is win a Stanley Cup,” DeBoer said.
In July, DeBoer said a goalie rotation was one path to winning that Cup. Yet there hasn’t been one yet, despite Fleury having played the best game of their quarterfinal series against Chicago in a 26-save, 2-1 win. He flat-out stole the game.
“He was incredible tonight. There were some parts of that game where we weren’t our best. They got some chances that we’d like to have back. To have him back there … he was the reason why we won this game tonight,” said defenseman Nate Schmidt, who, like Fleury, was an original “Golden Misfit” for expansion Vegas.
It was Lehner again 24 hours later, losing Game 4. Rather than flip back to Fleury, Lehner started Game 5 to eliminate the Blackhawks.
Against the Canucks, Fleury had a rather startling stat in his favor: He hadn’t lost to Vancouver in regulation in 14 years. Lehner’s numbers at this point in the postseason were good, but not great. Yet he got the start in the first two games of the series, winning Game 1 and losing Game 2.
When the Golden Knights are on their game, they might be the best team remaining in the tournament. They can win the Stanley Cup with either Lehner or Fleury playing competently. It’s entirely possible by the time you read this, Fleury has been named the starter for Game 3 or maybe even Game 4, depending on the rate of your media consumption.
If so, they’re righting a wrong. It should have been Fleury’s crease to start the playoffs. That was the message when they traded for Lehner. That’s how insurance is supposed to work. That’s the benefit that Fleury had earned in three seasons with the Knights.
Three things about Mike Green retiring
1. The Young Guns were awesome. Green was part of the Washington Capitals‘ “Young Guns” era, along with Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Semin. Ovechkin justifiably gets credit for transitioning a moribund franchise into the “Rock The Red” revolution that made the Capitals the most popular franchise in D.C. — we’re talking likeability, conceding that the local NFL team had greater numbers. But Green was the movement’s second-most-popular player, thanks to the mohawk and that cheesecake photo shoot and when he drove a Vespa to practice on HBO’s “24/7.” My favorite moment of that era was when the team shot an actual music video with the players as rock stars playing fake instruments at The State Theatre in Falls Church, Virginia. Green played the drums.
This team was about five years before its time as a social media juggernaut, and about 10 years before its time in terms of style of play. But along with Ted Leonsis, they’re the reason the Capitals have the following they have today, full stop.
2. Green deserved to win the 2009 Norris Trophy. I wasn’t a voter at the time, but there was a sense of how the voters felt that year: Zdeno Chara of the Boston Bruins won the Norris as a theoretical pushback against the award simply going to the best offensive defenseman. Chara was a worthy nominee, no doubt, with a 50-point season to go along with his status as the linchpin of the Bruins’ defensive system. (Patrice Bergeron wouldn’t get his first Selke nomination until 2012.) But Green had one of the most remarkable offensive performances from a defenseman in the modern NHL: 31 goals and 42 assists for 73 points in just 68 games. He was a Norris runner-up in that season and in the following one to Duncan Keith, which was a more understandable loss. Green should have won in 2009.
3. To that end, Green is one of the most important players in recent history. Mike Green was the first test case for analytics telling us more about a player than the “eye test” can. His defense was widely criticized, and there’s no question that the highlight reel had more lapses than Nicklas Lidstrom-esque defending. But Green was the first player for whom the argument existed that the best defense is to possess the puck and keep it out of your end. I think Green’s play started a conversation that Erik Karlsson‘s continued, about how to assess the defensive acumen of offensive defensemen. Ironically, it might be the conversation that costs current Capitals defenseman John Carlson the Norris Trophy in a few weeks.
Listen to ESPN On Ice
Emily Kaplan and I discuss the meme seen around the Twitter world (7:30). Former NHL player and current Sportsnet 590 NHL analyst Anthony Stewart talks about the entertaining Western Conference series between Vegas and Vancouver (18:15). CBS Sports writer and GIF-maker extraordinaire Pete Blackburn talks about his GIF game, and he tries his best to explain why Tuukka Rask has never been fully embraced in Boston (39:44). In “Phil Kessel loves hot dogs,” we focus on Mike Milbury, who is now off NHL broadcasts for the remainder of the playoffs. Emily explains why his comments were so hurtful to women in hockey, and why this privileged mentality should be ousted from the game (56:46). Please listen, review and subscribe to the podcast here!
Winners and losers of the week
Black athletes are tired of entertaining America when that same America doesnt seem on so many levels to give a damn about black people, the NBA players are making a loud statement
— Booger (@ESPNBooger) August 26, 2020
The NHL and its players shouldn’t have played their final two games of the schedule on Wednesday, as teams in the NBA, MLB and WNBA chose not to. That they did shouldn’t surprise us, as hockey has shown a unique apathy toward standing in unity with Black athletes in other sports, let alone standing with players of color in the NHL who are blasting that apathy. But over 100 players, all 32 team, the NHL and the NHLPA had issued messages of understanding and solidarity with those affected by racial violence, prejudice and police brutality. That was supposed to mean something. As Blake Wheeler said after the killing of George Floyd: “We have to be as involved in this as Black athletes. It can’t just be their fight.” Well, this was the fight, and the NHL hid under the ring. It’s words. It’s always just words. Comforting, performative words.
Winner: Elias Pettersson
We’re seeing a lot of star-making performances this postseason — including a trio of young defensemen — but Pettersson’s just on another level with 16 points in his first 12 playoff games. As coach Travis Green said: “I think the biggest thing is that he wants to win badly and understands that he doesn’t have to just win by scoring or making assists, even though that is a big part of his game and he’s very good at it.”
Loser: Fining Torts
John Tortorella had a 59-second news conference after his team was eliminated by the Lightning. The NHL fined him $25,000, “the collection of a conditional fine assessed Jan. 1, 2020.” I’m torn on the Tortorella news conference gimmick. I don’t mind his petulant act. It makes for good copy. I do mind how it makes reporters apprehensive to challenge him, lest he run away like a frightened bunny.
But this presser lasted two questions, and the second answer was a good one! “You know what, guys, I’m not going to get into the touchy-feely stuff and the moral victories and all that.” And then he walked out. I don’t know, I think there are a dozen other calculated, muttering, one-word-answer Tortorella shows that were more fine-worthy than this emotional, raw moment.
Winner: Rule followers
Congratulations to the 30 teams that followed NHL draft combine rules — or at least, didn’t get caught — because, wow, did the NHL ever drop the hammer on the Arizona Coyotes for violating those rules.
Loser: NHL officiating
The postseason has also seen its share of subpar officiating. I think the moment that had me yanking out the most hair was Game 2 of the Colorado-Dallas series, when Esa Lindell believed he scored, raised his arms in the air and referee Dan O’Rourke — positioned far from the net, unable to see the puck cross the goal line unless he is part barn owl — calls it a goal. There wasn’t enough evidence to overturn the call on the ice, and hence it was a goal. Calling a high stick they didn’t see because a player snaps his head back is bad enough. Calling a goal they didn’t see because a player raised his hands is just embarrassing.
Winner: Barry Trotz
Game 2 overtime loss aside, Trotz has the New York Islanders making that old, 1995 New Jersey Devils magic: smothering teams defensively, scoring counterpunch goals and taking out offensively gifted teams on a march through the playoffs. Are they fun? They are to Islanders fans. That’s really all that matters at this point.
Loser: GM Brian MacLellan
It’s not that the Washington Capitals didn’t bring back Trotz after winning the Stanley Cup — a five-year contract extension would have been a bit much — it’s that they picked Todd Reirden as his replacement. It was an effort to appease players who wanted more of the same. It ended up breeding complacency, and now Reirden is out. In the process, the Capitals wasted two years of Alex Ovechkin‘s career in first-round exits.
In case you missed this from your friends at ESPN
Good piece by Emily on the Lightning’s additions that are fueling their postseason success.