The Vegas Golden Knights went into the trade deadline winners of their past six games and in first place in the dog’s breakfast known as the Pacific Division. They’ve done that with a 35-year-old goalie and three backups who were wholly unreliable. That’s why they went out and got Robin Lehner from the Chicago Blackhawks.
The price, which was goalie Malcolm Subban, a second-round pick and prospect defenseman Slava Demin, made it worthwhile, particularly since they had two-second rounders in 2020 going into the deadline. It’s not a terribly high price for the Golden Knights to get the first real goaltending insurance they’ve had since they came into the league.
Fleury is, as usual, among the league leaders in wins, but there has been some slippage in his game. His .906 save percentage is significantly lower than the numbers he posted in his first two seasons with the Golden Knights. And with Fleury, there’s always the risk of injury, given his history of concussions. The Golden Knights have had three backups at various times this season in Subban, Garret Sparks and Oscar Dansk. That trio has started 21 of the team’s 64 games this season and has won just nine of those contests, all of them by Subban. When you’re fighting for a division lead and home ice advantage through the first two rounds of the playoffs, you can’t afford to throw points away. Having Lehner back up Fleury gives Vegas a huge upgrade in those games and a legitimate co-No. 1 should Fleury falter or get injured in the playoffs.
And that could very well be enough for the Golden Knights to make a run to the Stanley Cup final. They have two very strong top lines and lots of depth at forward, their defense corps is unspectacular, but very solid. That leaves goaltending. And with Lehner, who has been among the best goalies in the past two seasons, they have that.
One way this trade goes sideways is how Fleury reacts to it. Historically, he has not played his best when he’s pushed by someone threatening to take his crease. And Lehner will want to do that. He’s still looking for a long-term deal when he becomes an unrestricted free agent in the summer and the best way to do that would be to contribute to a team that goes deep into the playoffs. If he were to be usurped, Fleury would handle the situation with his usual aplomb and grace. And you can say all you want that this won’t happen, but the Golden Knights would not have made the deal had they been 100 percent confident in their goaltending.
The Blackhawks clearly were not going to sign Lehner long-term, which is actually kind of bizarre. Both Lehner and Corey Crawford are slated to become unrestricted free agents after the season and Subban is probably not the long-term answer. There are plenty of stop-gaps available to the Blackhawks. Aside from Lehner, Braden Holtby, Cam Talbot, Thomas Greiss, Jaroslav Halak and Anton Khudobin all stand become to UFAs this summer.
UPDATE: The Toronto Maple Leafs later announced this deal was part of a three-team swap. The Maple Leafs were a passthrough for Lehner, as Chicago retained a portion of his salary in a deal with Toronto, who then retained another portion of the netminder's salary before he landed in Vegas. The Golden Knights also received prospect Martins Dzierkals from the Maple Leafs, but Vegas sent a 2020 fifth-round pick to Toronto.
Want more in-depth features and analysis? Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.