What’s next for Vegas after trading ‘face of the franchise’ Fleury?

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We knew this was a possibility but, still, actually seeing Marc-Andre Fleury get traded out of Vegas brings a shock to the system.

He was the smiling beacon of optimism when the Golden Knights chose him in their expansion draft four years ago and then led them to the Stanley Cup Final in Year 1 — the first three rounds of those playoffs were absolutely stellar for Fleury.

And though he lost the starting job to Robin Lehner last season in the bubble playoffs, he took it back in 2021 in such a decisive manner that he won the Vezina Trophy. If anything, that award cemented Fleury’s future as a Hall of Famer — if he hadn’t already.

The flat cap is a vicious world, though, and it’s forcing several GMs into tough off-season choices. Fleury will be 37 in November, but that alone wasn’t reason to move him right now. It’s that he makes $7 million against the cap and is heading into the last season of his contract, while Lehner will earn $5 million for another four seasons. The Golden Knights are aiming to contend for a while here, and so a post-Fleury world had to be considered.

With Vegas so tight to the cap, still aiming to re-sign Alec Martinez, and be in the game for other trades or free agent picks up, it no longer made sense for them to be paying $12 million for two goalies. It was a luxury the cap no longer allowed.

In that way, the trade makes sense for Vegas, even if it is tough to swallow. What really enraged the hockey world over, though, was the initial reports that Fleury found out he had been traded over Twitter. How could Vegas treat its Day 1 star in such a way? GM Kelly McCrimmon explained in a very thorough introduction during his press conference that announced the trade.

“These were conversations that began between Marc-Andre and myself at exit meetings June 29. At that time I told Marc that I couldn’t say for sure what we would do with our goaltending for the upcoming year. I said to him I wanted to treat him professionally, I wanted to treat him with respect, I wanted to have open lines of communication, I wanted him to be fully aware of discussions I might have with teams,” McCrimmon said. “We spoke many times from that day up until as recently as this Saturday I spoke with his representatives for the final time.

“On July 12, I believe we spoke three times. I made ‘Flower’ aware of Chicago’s interest. We had an open discussion about that and any other team I spoke to or contacted me from the time I met with Marc-Andre on June 29 until up to and including a new team that contacted me on Saturday, which I made them aware, so I think communication throughout this process was very good.”

So how come Fleury found out about the news on social media instead of directly from the team?

“The rumours hit Twitter before I spoke to Marc-Andre Fleury,” McCrimmon continued. “We had not in fact even completed the trade call. We hadn’t begun the trade call with NHL Central Registry. We would never speak to a player before you got to the trade call in case it didn’t unfold. With respect to this morning it was on Twitter before we had our trade call completed.”

So Fleury is gone, in perhaps a less ceremonious way than he deserved, and now we wonder what’s next for both the player and the team.

First, the player.

Elliotte Friedman reported after the trade about rumblings that Fleury may retire, if traded, for family reasons. McCrimmon acknowledged that Fleury’s No. 1 preference was to play in Vegas, for a team and city he had fully invested in. Now he takes a step back from a contending team to tend goal for a Blackhawks franchise in the midst of a rebuild they’ve aggressively tried to push ahead this off-season, and one embroiled with troubling off-ice issues.

While the Hawks could, theoretically, trade Fleury again and retain some salary for a year — something Vegas didn’t have the flexibility to do — could he actually retire and not play in the NHL again?

“With respect to what decisions he might make moving forward, this is a player at the very top of his game who I believe will be a candidate to play on the Canadian Olympic team, so I sure think he’ll play this year,” McCrimmon opined.

If he does, the Hawks will add him to Kevin Lankinen, a great rookie story, to play behind a defence that has seen some change, namely the addition of Seth Jones. But the team defence in Chicago has been porous for two years now, and the workload for either tender should still be at a more challenging level than Fleury had in Vegas.

And what about the Golden Knights?

Lehner will carry on as their No. 1, but now they need to find a backup for him. The 30-year-old has been solid since arriving in Vegas, but he hasn’t played more than half a season’s worth of games since 2018-19 with the New York Islanders. That is not going to be the top priority for McCrimmon, though, because there are other areas of need.

Vegas currently has about $12.2 million in cap space, but that’s before the expected signing of Alec Martinez for a $5.25-million AAV (McCrimmon said he hoped to have news on that Wednesday). That would leave the Golden Knights with $6.95 million in cap space with 12 forwards, six defencemen and one goalie signed.

And there is still big fish potential here. The Golden Knights’ only identifiable “weakness” would be at centre, where William Karlsson and Chandler Stephenson were the top two pivots this season. Both were solid contributors, but neither is a true No. 1 at the position, and with Vegas’ penchant for targeting every big-name player who becomes available, it’s easy to imagine them wanting to upgrade there.

This is why they’re always mentioned in Jack Eichel trade rumours. Players like him almost never become available in trade, but now Eichel could be had from Buffalo. And if not Eichel, could the Golden Knights try and sign pending UFA Ryan Getzlaf, who wouldn’t cost anything close to the $10 million Eichel is pulling in?

McCrimmon downplayed the need for a centre, which won’t quell speculation anyway.

“It seems to concern people outside the organization a little bit more probably than inside the organization, but fair question,” he said.

One thing is for sure — the Fleury trade will not go over well in the local market because he was a beloved player, so it’s not a move that would have been made lightly.

“He was the most popular player I’ve ever seen in sports,” McCrimmon said. “He was the face of the franchise.

“He’s had a tremendous impact on our organization and our city. I know for a lot of people this is a day definitely filled with sadness and certainly I share all those same emotions.”

One way to start getting over the initial gut punch of this trade would be to follow it with another big splash addition that helps put them in better position to win a Stanley Cup.

So, do the Golden Knights have anything else brewing?

Silly season doesn’t officially begin until Wednesday with the opening of free agency. And now even more eyes will be on Vegas to see exactly what comes next.

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