Never could anyone have imagined the Golden Knights goalie depth would be tested the way it was. Five goalies used in the first 17 games gave George McPhee a pretty solid look at the present and the future of the most important position on the ice.
It would seem not much needs to happen between the pipes for the Golden Knights with Marc-Andre Fleury the clear starter, Malcolm Subban a solid backup and Oscar Dansk plus Maxime Lagace manning the crease in the AHL. However, it’s not that simple, and in fact, McPhee has plenty of decisions in the net not only this offseason but moving forward.
After posting Vezina quality numbers in the regular season and then racing out to become the Conn Smythe favorite before the final series of the playoffs, it appears Fleury’s days as a full-time starter aren’t as numbered as they appeared during the last days in Pittsburgh.
He’s mentioned playing for many more years and recently said he wants to finish his career in Vegas. Fleury has one more season left on his contract scheduled to pay him $5.75 million. Then he would become an unrestricted free agent, something the Golden Knights probably aren’t interested in letting happen.
Things do get a bit tricky though when dealing with the long-term future of a 33-year-old goalie. While it certainly appears his age isn’t getting in the way at this point, that could change at any moment. Signing Fleury to a four or five year deal is risky as his production could slip at any moment, but letting him constantly play on expiring deals keeps the control in the hands of the player rather than the organization.
If Fleury is being completely honest that he wants to finish his career with the Golden Knights, they should play the short-term contract game with him on a gentleman’s agreement that he’ll get a new deal every time he wants one and the price will be fair. There aren’t many players who any GM would be willing to go down that road with, but if there’s one, it’s probably Fleury.
There’s one concern there though, and that’s Pittsburgh. What if they come calling at some point? It’s easy to say he wants to finish his career in Vegas while sitting on stage in the same building as the Campbell Bowl, but if the idea of going back to the Penguins ever became a realistic possibility, he’d likely want to hear it out.
The best course of action for the Golden Knights is likely to keep him one year away from free agency at all times. Extend his contract each offseason so he feels comfortable, while also protecting the organization against the inevitable father time induced decline.
Malcolm Subban, Oscar Dansk, Max Lagace
Only one of these three players currently has a contract with the Golden Knights and that’s Subban. Dansk remains under Golden Knights control as he’s a restricted free agent with arbitration rights. Lagace is an unrestricted free agent set to hit the open market on July 1st if he doesn’t reach a deal with Vegas before then.
Subban still seems to be the clear #2 behind Fleury, but his injury-riddled season has to bring pause to the organization’s desire to commit to him as the heir-apparent. Subban was hurt once during a game early in the year and then found himself unavailable two more times due to injuries that occurred during practice. Subban missed a majority of the postseason and the team opted to use Lagace as the backup over Dansk.
Subban remaining as the backup leaves the Golden Knights in the interesting position many teams find themselves in heading into training camp, with more goalies than they have roster spots. Unlike last year when Oscar Dansk was waiver exempt and could be shuttled back and forth between the NHL and AHL without any risk of losing him to another team, this season he must clear waivers (including out of camp). So, assuming they keep him around, which they likely will, and he doesn’t win the backup job over Subban, which he likely won’t, Dansk will be available to every team in the NHL at some point during training camp. Like the Golden Knights did picking up Subban, Dansk is an attractive option to a team looking for a young goalie. As much as McPhee would probably love to have Dansk in the AHL and have two strong options to back up Fleury, unless he makes a trade, he has no choice but to put one through waivers. My guess, it’ll be Dansk that’s the odd-man out, and he’ll be in the NHL as a backup for another team come opening night 2018-19.
Finally, there’s Lagace. Statistically it wasn’t pretty for Lagace, but he was reliable enough to keep the Golden Knights afloat when they needed him and the team felt comfortable enough with him to have him in uniform on the bench during the Stanley Cup Final. There are probably better options out there as a fourth (or third if Dansk gets scooped up) goalie on the depth chart, but the familiarity with Lagace will probably earn him another one year deal in Vegas. He will clear waivers without any issue and will be a perfectly acceptable goalie for the Chicago Wolves.
Dylan Ferguson, Maxim Zhukov, Jiri Patera
Ferguson is the one that got all the headlines getting the emergency recall and eventually getting a chance to play a few minutes for the Golden Knights, but Zhukov and Patera were higher draft picks than Ferguson.
Zhukov was selected by the Golden Knights with the 96th overall pick in the 2017 Entry Draft and had an okay year (statistically) in the USHL with the Green Bay Gamblers. Patera, the 161st pick in last year’s draft had a similar year to Zhukov, also in the USHL.
We’ll likely see all three, plus if any other goalies are picked in this year’s draft, at Development Camp next week.
The Golden Knights are in a much better spot than most teams at the goaltender position. They have a permanent starter who is playing the best hockey of his life, they have multiple backups that have a chance to become the starter in the future, and they have a few prospects in the pipeline. Can’t ask for much more, but the pressure ramps up a bit on Subban if Dansk is lost to waivers.