It was a simple transaction announcement Tuesday afternoon — Maxime Lagace was being returned to the AHL Chicago Wolves.
But the news behind the news was huge. It meant Marc-Andre Fleury was returning to active duty for the Golden Knights. And the timing couldn’t have been better.
Or more critical.
We last saw Fleury in goal back on March 15 in a 2-1 win over the Dallas Stars in Texas. Since then, he had been given time off, reportedly having sustained a lower-body injury. His wife Veronique was also giving birth to the family’s third child, this time, a boy. And it didn’t hurt for Fleury to reboot things mentally as well as heal up physically.
No doubt the time off had to have done him a lot of good. And the reality was the Golden Knights weren’t catching Calgary and winning the Pacific Division. So the decision to shut Fleury down was a wise one.
He has had a wonderful season, arguably one of his best of his NHL career. In 59 games, he has a 35-19-5 record, eight shutouts, a 2.46 goals-against average and a .914 save percentage. He probably won’t win the Vezina Trophy, which goes to the NHL’s top goalie, but he had played himself into the conversation over the first half of the year.
Don’t forget, he’s no kid anymore. The guy is 34 years old, but given the high standard of his play, Fleury remains the most critical piece of the Knights’ puzzle going forward into the postseason next week.
He will be expected to put the team on his back and take them as far as he can. That was the case last year as Fleury was brilliant through the first three rounds of the playoffs and he played well in the Stanley Cup Final too.
He’ll get some playoff preseason work in Thursday against Arizona in the regular-season home finale at T-Mobile Arena and he’ll probably be in net Saturday in the last game of the year in Los Angeles against the Kings. It’ll give him a chance to get his timing back, to reconnect with his defensemen, to help give the Knights some momentum going into the opening round of the playoffs against San Jose and to be back where he is happiest — on the ice.
I don’t know too many players who simply love playing hockey the way Fleury does. It’s almost child-like in his affection for the game. You watch 7-, 8- and 9-year-olds scamper all over the ice and having fun. That’s Fleury, even at age 34.
That kind of love becomes infectious inside the locker room. The players see their goalie having fun and it energizes them. They all tap into the little boy inside each of them.
Yes, this is their job. Yes, they’re paid to win. Yes, there’s tremendous pressure and high expectations on all of them, Fleury included. But when you strip all of that away, it reverts back to why you laced up your skates and grabbed a stick in the first place. There’s something special about riding to the rink, getting on the ice and skating and shooting, or, in Fleury’s case, stopping the puck. Hockey should be fun, even at the NHL level. To Fleury’s credit, he never forgot that.
A word or two about Malcolm Subban if I may.
Fleury’s backup did the best he could during the nine-game run he spent in the crease while Fleury was off. He played brilliantly at times, God-awful at others. He went 4-5 during his time in net, including two overtime defeats (to Detroit and San Jose) and earning his first NHL shutout when he blanked Winnipeg 5-0 back on March 21.
I believe Subban is a better goalie than he was a year ago. He has made considerable progress. Dave Prior, the Knights’ goaltending coach, concurs. He’s only 25 years old, so his best hockey should be in front of him.
Whether he is Vegas’ goalie of the future is something I’m not convinced of.
His game still needs a lot of work. He has to handle the puck better behind the net. He needs to fight through screens better. He can’t allow the soft goals he let in with alarming regularity during this recent run. His athleticism takes him only so far.
Ask yourself this: If Fleury should go down with a serious injury, one that puts him on IR, do you trust Subban to hold down the fort?
Few NHL teams have a great backup. Most are good, and I would probably put Subban at the lower scale of good. But he is serviceable for the regular season, and for now, he’s the guy.
Now going forward, do the Knights take a long, hard look at Oscar Dansk in training camp come September and give him a legit shot to win the backup’s job? Is Lagace in the equation too? Or does George McPhee opt to sign a goalie in free agency come July to ride shotgun alongside Fleury?
That’s a long ways away. For now, the focus is on Fleury and the playoffs. The Sharks will be looking to rattle his cage and try and throw him off his game. Fleury has a career record of 11-9 vs. San Jose with three shutouts, two of which came during last year’s conference semifinals. So he knows the Sharks well.
And of all the matchups in this series, the Knights hold the biggest edge in goal. Fleury is considerably better than Martin Jones and Aaron Dell. So if I’m Sharks coach Peter DeBoer, I’m hoping I can get my guys to create enough havoc in front of Fleury, get some greasy goals at his expense and stay in this thing. Because unless Jones suddenly takes a magic pill and morphs into Martin Brodeur, San Jose can expect the red light to go on behind its net with some regularity.
It’s that time of the year. The stakes are about to be raised considerably. Fortunately, it’s also spring. Time for flowers, both human and plant, to bloom.
**Steve Carp is the author of “Vegas Born — The remarkable story of the Golden Knights.” Follow him on Twitter @stevecarp56. All of Steve Carp’s work here on SinBin.vegas is presented to you by the Jimmerson Law Firm. For over twenty-five years, the Jimmerson Law Firm has been widely recognized as one of Las Vegas’s preeminent full-service law firms. Specializing in high stakes business, civil and family litigation, the Jimmerson Law Firm has an unparalleled track record of winning when it matters most. To reach the Jimmerson Law Firm, call (702) 388-7171 and tell them SinBin.vegas sent you.**