Back in the days when the Golden Knights played games at T-Mobile Arena in front of 18,000 fans, the song “The Man” by the Killers would occasionally blare over the loudspeakers.
♪♪ I got skin in the game
I got a household name
I got news for you baby, you’re looking at the man ♪♪
That man for the Golden Knights was Marc-Andre Fleury.
When he’d make an incredible sliding save, stop a breakaway, or steal a goal with a windmill glove save, you’d hear that song, usually accompanied by a shot of him smiling through his mask on the big screen.
Fleury was the man at the Expansion Draft. He was the man in training camp. He was the man in the playoffs and into the Stanley Cup Final. Since the moment the Golden Knights got him, Marc-Andre Fleury has been “The Man.”
Then, he wasn’t.
Marc-Andre is a guy that I look at and he’s one of the best humans, the biggest personalities, one of the greatest guys and it was hard to see what happened. But you have a chance with Robin and he’s a fantastic goalie as well so those things are difficult. It was tough for the room. –Nate Schmidt to Sportsnet 650
This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. In the next 50 years of the Golden Knights franchise, they’ll probably never have a guy as universally liked as Marc-Andre Fleury. So for his teammates to see him placed in an unenviable position was always going to be rough.
Plus, it wasn’t the only thing that was “tough for the room.” The firing of Gerard Gallant and Mike Kelly was incredibly challenging for everyone as well. Throw in the pause in the season, the bubble, and the pandemic itself and it becomes fairly clear the Golden Knights were set up to fail.
Sometimes, change is necessary. The results may have indicated that with both the firing of Gallant and the switch from Fleury to Lehner. But in a league with as much parity as the NHL, a few percent increase on the ice may not be worth the ripple effect it causes off it.
The Golden Knights should know this as well as anyone in the history of the league. They rode the “Golden Misfits” label all the way to the Stanley Cup Final in a year that most believed their talent level should have had them staring at the NHL’s cellar rather than the mountain top.
The organization has gone to great lengths to make the team better, and it’s hardly in question that’s exactly what they’ve done. But there’s been an emotional toll along the way, none bigger than the fallout from the benching of Fleury.
There’s no way to prove the exact empirical effects but professional sports are a binary business. Either you win or you don’t. The Golden Knights didn’t and hearing a now-former player share how tough the Fleury situation was on the team, it’s hard to believe it didn’t at least contribute to how the season unfortunately ended.