Updated September 16, 2020 - 7:24 pm
For obvious reasons, the Golden Knights’ recently completed season will hold a unique place in the history books.
Next to the footnotes about a four-month pause because of a pandemic and the Knights falling one step short of playing for the Stanley Cup for the second time in three seasons will be the picture of a goaltender and a sword.
The decision by coach Pete DeBoer to make Robin Lehner the No. 1 goaltender for the postseason tournament ahead of Marc-Andre Fleury turned out to be a seminal moment for the third-year organization.
Now that the dust has settled and the fan base has been divided, the Knights enter a potentially franchise-altering offseason with the goaltending position at the top of the agenda.
“Between now and the draft, now and free agency on the ninth of October … we’ve got decisions to make,” general manager Kelly McCrimmon said Wednesday during a videoconference call. “And those are the type of discussions that we’ll have. And those are the decisions that we’ve got to make. We don’t have those answers for you right now. First order of business, I think, in many respects is to sort that out.”
DeBoer and McCrimmon were available during the team’s end-of-season interviews to provide their side of a competition that turned sour Aug. 22 when Fleury’s agent tweeted a picture of his client being stabbed through the back by a sword with “DeBoer” inscribed on the blade.
Fleury and Lehner were not among the players who spoke during the final media availability of the season.
For the first time since Lehner was chosen to start Game 1 of the Western Conference quarterfinal ahead of the three-time Stanley Cup champion, DeBoer and McCrimmon went into greater detail about the decision.
Adjusting the plan
McCrimmon revealed that DeBoer was not interested in acquiring a goaltender at the trade deadline and it was management and the pro scouting staff that pushed for insurance behind Fleury.
DeBoer said he planned to start Fleury in the postseason, but Lehner’s performance during training camp was the deciding factor to make him the starter.
“We basically split them into the pause, and Robin played at an elite level and (Fleury) played at a very good level,” DeBoer said. “Came out of the pause, went into training camp, again, I went in with the idea that if both guys played at an equal level, we would’ve given (Fleury) the starts out of respect for what he’s done for the franchise here.”
Lehner went 3-0 with a 1.67 goals-against average, .940 save percentage and one shutout after he was acquired at the February trade deadline from Chicago for backup goalie Malcolm Subban, prospect Slava Demin and a 2020 second-round pick.
Over that same stretch, Fleury went 2-2 with a 2.51 GAA and .894 save percentage and was in the net for the final game at Edmonton before the pause when the Knights won in overtime to ultimately clinch the Pacific Division title.
But Fleury sustained an undisclosed injury during voluntary group workouts and missed the first three practices in the July Phase Three training camp for maintenance.
DeBoer started Fleury in the exhibition game July 30 against Arizona, and he carried a shutout into the third period, then struggled in a win over St. Louis during the round robin.
Lehner went 2-0 (2.89 GAA, .903 SP) in the round robin and helped the Knights clinch the top seed with wins over Dallas and Colorado.
“Robin, again, was at an elite level. (Fleury) was at a very good level,” DeBoer said. “We made that tough decision. I don’t regret that.”
Lehner went on to start every important game during the postseason, including Game 7 against Vancouver in the conference semifinals. In 16 appearances, he went 9-7 with a 1.99 GAA and .917 save percentage. He leads the league with four shutouts.
Fleury finished 3-1 with a 2.27 GAA and .910 save percentage.
“Peter felt really confident after we went through Phase Two and Phase Three that Robin was the guy that was going to give us the best chance to win. And that’s his job,” McCrimmon said. “Was it unfortunate for Marc-Andre Fleury and his situation? It really was. I do have empathy for him and how it played out. I really do. It was not, as some are suggesting, it was not the master plan.”
The Knights now must decide the future of their goaltending position and whether to move on from the face of the franchise.
Lehner denied reports during the postseason that he has a handshake agreement with the Knights on a five-year, $25 million contract extension.
Fleury is signed for two more seasons with a $7 million salary cap hit, and it will be difficult for the Knights to keep both with a flat salary cap for the foreseeable future. The deadline for Fleury to submit his 10-team, no-trade list was Tuesday, according to CapFriendly.com.
McCrimmon said his relationship with Fleury remains good. The uncertainty of what next season will look like and the possibility of a condensed schedule adds greater importance to having two reliable goaltenders.
“Perhaps that’s a consideration as we make our decisions,” McCrimmon said. “These are decisions we have to make, and that’s what makes this time of year that we’re heading into extremely important.”
1.99 goals-against average
.917 save percentage
2.27 goals-against average
.910 save percentage