On June 21st, 2017, Marc-Andre Fleury’s walked across the stage at T-Mobile Arena to the roar of 10,000 fans. It was in the moment he became the starting goaltender for the Vegas Golden Knights, a position he would hold for more than three years, until last night.
For a franchise that has gone through many changes over its first three seasons, if there was one place where you could find stability, it was between the pipes. After claiming Malcolm Subban on waivers four days before the team’s first game, Fleury was the starter and Subban was the backup.
When healthy, there was never a question as to who the Golden Knights’ first choice goaltender was on any given night.
It worked that was for almost three full years. Fleury was the starter in the first game ever in Dallas. He started the emotional home opener against Arizona. He was in the net for all 20 games on the Golden Knights’ run to the Stanley Cup Final in 2018.
He started the opener in 2018-19, he played every game against the Sharks in the 2019 playoffs and he started the opener against those same Sharks to open 2019-20. In total, he racked up 179 starts in the Golden Knights first 256 meaningful games and had it not been for injuries and absences for personal reasons, that number would be well over 200.
However, over the past eight months, four of which saw the NHL season on pause, the Golden Knights goaltending situation has been anything but stable.
On January 15th, 2020, the Golden Knights made a change at head coach, firing Gerard Gallant and hiring Pete DeBoer. This was the beginning of a flurry (pun intended) of changes. Hiring DeBoer signaled the end of Director of Goaltending Dave Prior’s role of selecting the starting goalie each night.
I pick the goalie. Obviously I gather information from Dave when I originally got here and now it’ll be Mike but I’ll decide who’s going every night. -DeBoer on 2/28/20
A little more than a month later, the real upheaval began. Despite starting him the night before, a 6-5 win in Anaheim, Malcolm Subban was traded along with a 2nd round pick and a prospect to the Chicago Blackhawks for goaltender Robin Lehner.
If anything ever happened to Marc-Andre Fleury, we weren’t strong enough to win playoff games if we get to that point. Those are hard decisions, but we felt that way. -Kelly McCrimmon on 2/26/28
A few days later, Prior was
fired placed on administrative leave. The most important man in Golden Knights goaltending was gone, just two days after the team’s blockbuster trade was to acquire a goaltender.
I’m a big believer that competition at any position is a great motivational tool and it always pushes, especially competitive people, to new levels. -DeBoer on 2/26/20
The Golden Knights’ first game following the trade deadline was on February 26th, a game they won 3-0 against the Edmonton Oilers, with Fleury in the net.
Flower (is in net). Easy decision. He’s been playing great recently. It gives Robin some time but he’ll get a start soon. -DeBoer on 2/26/20
The next game, two nights later, went to Lehner.
We’re going with the big fella tonight. -DeBoer on 2/28/20
From that moment forward, the Golden Knights alternated between Fleury and Lehner.
The idea is to have both your goalies performing at their highest level. Flower is our starter. We know when he’s playing his best that he gives our team a real good chance to win. That’s why it’s important that we are positioned for him to do that. Robin gives us a luxury to an extent, to be able to add a goalie of his caliber to our team when we already had Marc-Andre Fleury. We felt vulnerable at that position. -McCrimmon on 2/29/20
After acquiring Lehner, the Golden Knights went 5-2-0 with Lehner winning all three of his starts against Buffalo, New Jersey, and Calgary, and Fleury beating Edmonton twice while losing to Los Angeles and Winnipeg.
On March 12th, the league was forced to halt due to the spread of COVID-19. Players were asked to quarantine in their homes for the next three months without anyone having the ability to get on the ice.
Goaltending is a lot like starting pitching. You can’t have enough of it, especially come playoffs. I foresaw a situation where we could get Flower some rest and have a healthy energized Flower. I also saw a situation where we would use both guys. They both have such different styles. -DeBoer on 4/30/20
On June 8th, Phase 2 of the NHL’s Return to Play began first allowing Golden Knights back into City National Arena. Both Fleury and Lehner were among the players who returned immediately.
With two exhibition games and with three round-robin games, that will give Pete and the coaching staff the opportunity to use those two goalies to see how they see fit. -McCrimmon on 6/13/20
On July 13th, Phase 3 began with the start of an abbreviated training camp to prepare for the modified playoff format commencing on August 1st. Fleury missed the first three days for what was described as “maintenance”
We’ve got two starting goaltenders and we’re going to play them both. -DeBoer on 7/14/20
After the Golden Knights arrived in Edmonton, DeBoer laid out his plans for the first four games in the bubble.
My plan here is both guys are going to play through the round-robin. I think coming off a four-month pause in order to make sure that we get everybody up to speed and are fair and have all the information at our disposal when we start the playoffs that’s the right thing to do. They’ll probably play two and two between the exhibition game and the three round-robin games and then we’ll make some tough decisions. -DeBoer on 7/28/20
The Golden Knights won all four of those games, increasing Lehner’s record with Vegas to a perfect 5-0-0 while Fleury hoisted a record of 4-2-0 (one win was an exhibition game).
Up to that point, there had been a clear rotation and thus the Golden Knights did indeed have “two starters.” According to DeBoer, there was consideration of continuing that into the first round.
I think everything’s on the table. It’s such a unique year, such a unique format. I’ve already heard there’s going to be some back-to-backs in the early rounds of the playoffs which typically you never got so for me everything’s on the table in that regard. -Pete DeBoer on 8/7/20
On August 11th, Robin Lehner was named the starter for the Golden Knights first real playoff game, Game 1 against the Chicago Blackhawks.
Obviously a tough decision when you have two quality goaltenders. It wasn’t what Flower didn’t do, it’s what Robin has done since he’s gotten here. -DeBoer on 8/11/20
The rotation had officially ended as Lehner played in consecutive games for the first time as a Golden Knight. In fact, he’d played in three of the four meaningful games since the team returned to action. He’d make it four of five in Game 2.
I think I’ve been clear since we’ve started this that’s we’ve got two starters. How I roll them out is going to be day to day based on what I feel gives us the best chance to win a game and win a series. That’s not going to change. I’m sure both guys are going to play. What that rotation looks like is something we’re going to discuss daily and roll out the guys, not just in net, but throughout our lineup, that give us the best chance to win. -DeBoer on 8/13/20
Now, with a pair of games on back-to-back nights, it’s likely the Golden Knights will use Lehner in one game and Fleury in the other.
Assuming it goes that way, Lehner will have started three games in the playoff series and five of the seven meaningful games since the team returned to play.
While the words coming from DeBoer remain politically correct, his actions prove two facts beyond a reasonable doubt.
Marc-Andre Fleury is no longer the Golden Knights starter and the goalie position is anything but stable.