VGK Marc-Andre Fleury’s traded and off to Chicago Blackhawks
By Jason R. Latham
It’s interesting to see Las Vegas go through all of the emotions that come with having a successful pro sports franchise, especially one that’s “Vegas Born.”
It happened first in the pre-pandemic days of 2020, when the Vegas Golden Knights sent Gerard Gallant packing two-and-a-half seasons into his tenure as the franchise’s first head coach. The outcry was loud but not sustained as the team went on to earn the top seed in the Western Conference, returning to the playoffs again in 2021 under new coach Peter DeBoer.
The response to Gallant’s ousting was nothing compared to Marc-Andre Fleury’s exit.
Vegas’ Hometown Hero Gets a Ticket Out of Town
The face of the franchise, a projected National Hockey League Hall of Famer, and defending Vezina Trophy winner, Fleury was traded to the Chicago Blackhawks in the early hours of July 27 in exchange for salary relief and one-time prospect Mikael Hakkarainen.
Vegas will enter the 2021-22 season with starting goaltender Robin Lehner, and VGK fans are getting their first real taste of what it’s like when a sports hero gets a ticket out of town.
This is the game. Players get traded in every offseason, and often, midseason. That it’s happening in Las Vegas, where the Golden Knights and their original expansion lineup have been vaulted into the annals of the town’s brief professional sports history, will likely make it one of the year’s Top 10 news stories.
It’s certainly the talk of the town right now.
Fleury’s Star Power Gave the Team Legitimacy
Fleury arrived in Vegas a three-time Stanley Cup winner having been left exposed by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2017 Expansion Draft — the Penguins front office preferred a younger starter in Matt Murray, now with the Ottawa Senators. His star power immediately gave the team legitimacy, despite now-hilarious takes that projected a last place finish for the fresh-faced franchise.
In his first year, Fleury led the team to the Stanley Cup Finals, a feat unmatched in the modern NHL era. The Las Vegas fanbase immediately embraced the Quebec native for his coolness in front of the net, and for his near-superhuman saves, notably one that occurred in a 2019 game against the Toronto Maple Leafs. The image of a leaping Fleury making a glove save of a shot by Toronto’s Nic Petan is burned into the brains of Golden Knights fans and bolstered the team’s already-shiny image in NHL and team marketing campaigns.
The Golden Knights rewarded Fleury’s efforts early in his tenure, giving a three-year, $21 million contract extension to start the 2019-20 season. The Golden Knights never missed the playoffs with Fleury in net, and in the shortened 2020-2021 season, he finished 26-10 with a .928 save percentage. The team would fall to the Montreal Canadiens in the Stanley Cup Semifinals, but Fleury’s dominance earned him the William M. Jennings and the aforementioned Vezina trophies.
It was a fitting cap to Fleury’s career in Vegas, though had he finished his career here, especially if he led the team to a Stanley Cup victory, there likely would have been a statue of the man in Toshiba Plaza. It might even have been a statue of him making that save.
VGK Fans Grieve Fleury’s Exit
Now, as fans try to work through the five stages of grief, Fleury is off to Chicago and the Golden Knights are left to defend themselves from a public relations nightmare of their own creation. The team has already tripped itself up once when dealing with Fleury, when DeBoer handed Lehner the starting goalie gig in August 2020. Fleury’s agent, Allan Walsh, responded by posting a photo of his client with a sword in his back. The sword had DeBoer’s name on it.
Now the swords, daggers, bats, shovels, and any other melee weapon you can think of, are out for DeBoer and General Manager Kelly McCrimmon, and this fanbase – which is not used to disappointment – wants to bathe in their blood.
The Helsinki-born Hakkarainen, who has never played in the NHL and is so unknown he doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page, won’t be able to fill the gap left by the departure of the Golden Knights’ OG goaltender. McCrimmon has Lehner to start in goal, but fans will be waiting rather anxiously to see if the $7 million saved on the last season of Fleury’s contract will net them an impact player in trade or free agency. If that doesn’t happen, or if Lehner underperforms in his first full season as a Vegas starter, the (not exactly reasonable) voices currently calling for McCrimmon’s ouster will only get louder.
Surely, the general manager is aware of what’s on the line. This is the game. It’s just the first time Vegas has ever played.
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