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Marc-Andre Fleury ‘grateful for my time’ as Golden Knight

Updated July 27, 2021 - 7:35 pm

The Golden Knights parted ways with the face of the franchise Tuesday, trading goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury to the Chicago Blackhawks.

The deal puts a dramatic end to Fleury’s four-year run with the Knights after the future Hall of Famer helped put the expansion club on the hockey map with his acrobatic saves and beaming smile.

“He was the most popular player I’ve ever seen in sports. He was the face of the franchise,” general manager Kelly McCrimmon said. “I know for a lot of people this is a day that is definitely filled with sadness. Certainly I share all of those same emotions that you do, and yet I do feel I’m responsible to try to do everything I can to put the best team on the ice.

“That’s what I’m doing along with the other people in our hockey operations. We work hard to make good decisions and give you a team that you’re going to be proud of.”

Fleury became one of the city’s most beloved figures after leading the Knights to the Stanley Cup Final in their inaugural season and won the Vezina Trophy in 2021 as the NHL’s top goaltender.

But his $7 million salary cap hit for the upcoming season was too much to handle, and he was swapped for minor league forward Mikael Hakkarainen, who will remain with the Chicago organization for bookkeeping purposes.

Fleury expressed his desire to finish his career with the Knights, and owner Bill Foley was on record that he wanted the three-time Stanley Cup winner to play the rest of his career with the club.

Foley said he was “disappointed” in the outcome, but came around to the idea of trading Fleury after being presented with the club’s salary cap situation last week during the pro scouting meetings.

The Knights performed salary cap gymnastics last season and were fatigued in the playoffs after being forced to play short of the maximum 18 skaters during several games in the regular season. They weren’t willing to jump through the same hoops in 2021-22, according to Foley.

“I’m not OK with it, but I accept it,” Foley said. “We looked at our cap situation; it was just obvious. We have no room, and we were really going to be in a big jam this year. Unfortunately, ‘Flower,’ he was the man standing with a pretty big cap hit.

“The scouts and Kelly and (president of hockey operations George McPhee) felt like we just had to get some cap space, we had to get some room. I finally capitulated. I said, ‘OK, I understand. I get it.’ ”

Contemplating retirement?

Fleury’s agent, Allan Walsh, tweeted Tuesday morning that his client hadn’t heard from the Knights and learned of the trade on the social media platform.

Walsh added that Fleury “will be taking time to discuss his situation with his family and seriously evaluate his hockey future at this time.”

Foley and McCrimmon said the team was in communication with Fleury throughout the offseason to inform him of its plans and Chicago’s interest. McCrimmon added that he would never contact a player in the moments leading up to a deal until the official trade call was finalized.

The Knights host the Blackhawks on Jan. 8 and March 26 at T-Mobile Arena, and travel to Chicago in the penultimate regular-season game April 27.

“I want to thank all the amazing fans in Vegas and my teammates for four incredible years together,” Fleury said in a statement. “You embraced me and my family from Day One and made playing games at the Fortress one of the great joys of my life. We will miss playing in Vegas very much, but I am grateful for my time in your city.”

Fleury was selected from the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2017 expansion draft and became an instant favorite in a city still reeling from the Oct. 1 mass shooting on the Strip.

Fleury’s on-ice high jinks, whether it was tickling Winnipeg’s Blake Wheeler on the ear during a scrum or building a wall of snow to guard his empty net, endeared him even further to fans.

He went 117-60-14 in 192 appearances with the Knights and posted a 2.41 goals-against average and .917 save percentage.

But the Knights traded for goalie Robin Lehner in 2020 and signed him to a five-year, $25 million contract in October, signaling Fleury’s time with the team was coming to an end.

“Right from expansion, we were always looking for our next goalie,” McCrimmon said. “We were always asking the question, ‘Who is our next goalie going to be?’ I think that’s where Robin slots in real nicely.”

“Hard decisions”

Before the start of the 2020 Western Conference semifinals, Walsh created a controversy when he tweeted and later deleted a picture of Fleury being stabbed through the back with a sword inscribed with coach Pete DeBoer’s last name on the blade.

The Knights explored trading Fleury last offseason before deciding to keep both goaltenders for the condensed 2021 season.

Fleury regained the starting job from Lehner and moved into third place on the all-time wins list. He posted career bests in goals-against average (1.98) and save percentage (.928) to capture his first Vezina Trophy at age 36.

In the postseason, Fleury earned the starting nod and guided the Knights to the Stanley Cup semifinals. But he committed a costly error late in Game 3 of the series against the Montreal Canadiens that led to the tying goal and also was in net for the Game 5 loss.

“The opportunity to acquire a Vezina-winning goaltender is rare and one you cannot pass up,” Chicago general manager Stan Bowman said in a statement.

With Fleury out of the picture, the 30-year-old Lehner takes over as the Knights’ No. 1 goaltender for the 2021-22 season and is tasked with backstopping a Stanley Cup run.

The Knights also are projected to have more than $12 million in salary cap space with 18 players on the roster, according to CapFriendly.com, and set up to make another huge splash.

Buffalo Sabres center Jack Eichel remains on the trade block, and the Knights continued to be linked with the three-time all-star. Free agency also begins Wednesday, and McCrimmon could look to improve through that avenue.

“If you want to do your job well, you have to make hard decisions,” McCrimmon said. “It’s easy to sit on your hands and let time pass by without trying to do what you can to help your hockey team.

“We’re always doing what we can to help this team be the best team it can be, and that’s what I feel my mandate is.”

Contact David Schoen at dschoen@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-5203. Follow @DavidSchoenLVRJ on Twitter.

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