The Golden Knights have made four moves in the past week adding a forward, a defenseman, and a goalie while subtracting one forward in Cody Eakin.
Let’s start with the big one, the addition of Robin Lehner from Chicago for Malcolm Subban, a 2nd round pick, and prospect Slava Demin. There is no arguing that the Golden Knights got a lot better in this trade going from Subban to Lehner, but this deal comes with a lot of baggage. No, I’m not referring to anything regarding Lehner’s past, he’s proven to have overcome any concerns there and has been incredible in the past two seasons, I’m talking about a goalie controversy.
For three seasons the Golden Knights have had a clear hierarchy between the pipes. It’s Marc-Andre Fleury’s net and whoever is healthy fills in behind him. Now, things have changed. There’s a legitimate argument that Lehner should be the starter right away. He was better last season, he’s been better this season, he’s younger, and he has far fewer games on his body. But, can you really just cast aside the undisputed leader of the franchise heading into the team’s third playoff run, and can you do it this late in the season successfully?
It’s going to be a tough balance, and one that is only going to get tougher as the games grow in importance. Pete DeBoer doesn’t have to choose his starting goalie for Game 1 of the playoffs right now, he has time. But, what if one doesn’t emerge as the clear cut starter? What if they are both great? He’s going to have an incredibly tough choice and one that will have an impact on the locker room. Then, once we get there, how quick is the leash on whoever is in the net?
In theory, these are good problems to have as any coach will tell you that it’s better to have too many good players than not enough. However, we aren’t talking about a 2nd line left-wing or a 2nd pair defenseman, we’re talking about the most important position in the game. Also, these aren’t no-name guys, one is the face of the franchise and the other is the big trade deadline acquisition. One has to ride the pine and there will be an emotional backlash that comes with it. It’s a delicate balance and DeBoer and Dave Prior have to get it exactly right.
There is good news though, the Golden Knights are WAY better equipped now in the event they receive poor goaltending. With Fleury and Subban, if Fleury played poorly, or got hurt, the Golden Knights season was likely sunk. It’s not that Subban was terrible, but this team needs high-end goaltending if they want to hoist the Cup and he’s never proven to be able to provide it consistently. At best it was a massive question mark, now it’s anything but. If either Fleury or Lehner struggle, there’s a hell of an option to turn to (basically the opposite of the Sharks situation last year).
In that sense, the move is terrific. It’s a great insurance policy that proves the Golden Knights are all-in on winning the Cup this year. They just have to do it, otherwise, all eyes turn to Lehner’s pending free agency and that might end up becoming an even more sticky situation than the goalie controversy between now and May.
Next, there’s the forward swap. Personally, I thought the Golden Knights got better simply by removing the temptation of playing Cody Eakin (he’s been that bad), but now they add a legitimate replacement for less cost both against the cap and in trade value. This is a great move for the Golden Knights as it adds depth, it paved the way for the moves of Martinez and Lehner, and it got rid of a player they just couldn’t seem to ever figure out wasn’t cutting it this year.
Finally, we’ve got Martinez… and only Martinez. I’ll admit, he’s been impressive in the first few games both chipping in offensively with a pair of terrific reads jumping into the play leading to goals and with his shot-blocking ability in his own end. I’m still not convinced he’s the lock-down defenseman he once was, but he’s better than Jon Merrill, Zach Whitecloud, and Deryk Engelland. So, once again, the Golden Knights got better.
The price of two 2nds remains high, however, with the Lehner move the Golden Knights have shown they are 100% in go-for-it mode. With that in mind, I’d rather overpay for Martinez than be left at the alter with no defenseman when the deadline struck midnight. Future be damned if you have a legit chance to win the Stanley Cup, which this team does.
Which brings me to my final point, that they still may have come up short. The prices for the puck-moving D-men ended up being fairly insignificant in relation to everything else the Golden Knights did. Erik Gustafsson went for a 3rd, Sami Vatanen for a 4th and a pair of prospects, and Tyson Barrie was kept as an “own rental” in Toronto. If you are going to go all-in, go all-in!
This team would be stacked if they could have pulled off a move for that final d-man. Of course, the cap still needed to settle, but if they had to Ryan Reaves’ $2.85 million deal is still on the books and Nick Cousins can serve that role (at least the hockey part). Instead, when the playoffs start, Merrill, Whitecloud, or Engelland are in the lineup, and we’ll probably see all three if the run is as lengthy as we hope. The Golden Knights exited the 2020 Trade Deadline down just one future pick. If they were willing to dip into the rental market, why not dive in headfirst and really sell the farm?
All in all though, there’s no reason to be upset with the Golden Knights haul at the deadline.
They’ve just got to win 16 playoff games, otherwise, all this positivity will turn quickly.