In a perfect world, Marc-Andre Fleury would retire from the NHL as a member of the Vegas Golden Knights, his No. 29 jersey raised to the rafters of T-Mobile Arena, honored in perpetuity. But pro sports is a business and like all competitive pursuits, often a cruel one. When the Golden Knights traded Fleury and his $7 million cap hit to the Chicago Blackhawks, they almost assured there would be no fairytale ending between them and their first franchise netminder.
Perhaps time will heal those wounds, but now with everything still raw, the best we can do is ponder Fleury’s legacy in Vegas, because it has been a profound one.
On the ice, Fleury brought instant legitimacy to the expansion team when the Golden Knights were first formed back in 2017. At the time, we had no idea that then-GM George McPhee would put together a fast, underrated squad that would turn the likes of William Karlsson, Reilly Smith and Jonathan Marchessault into instant sensations – but we knew the Knights would be taken care of in net thanks to Fleury, who had Stanley Cup rings on his resume from his days with the Pittsburgh Penguins (and with the benefit of hindsight, would the Pens have kept Fleury if they knew how Matt Murray would struggle without him around?).
Fleury lived up to his reputation right away as one of two Golden Knights to play at the 2018 All-Star Game (along with James Neal), while posting a 2.24 goals-against average and .927 save percentage – the best numbers of his career at that point.
And of course Fleury and the Knights followed up that excellent regular season with a wild playoff run that saw the expansion team go all the way to the final before losing to the Washington Capitals. Though the run fell short, the 13 wins was still a record for a franchise’s first playoff sojourn. In four years with Vegas, Fleury suited up in 47 post-season games. That’s a staggering number for a veteran on an expansion team.
As the years went on, Vegas added more star power to its roster, from Mark Stone and Max Pacioretty to Alex Pietrangelo last season. Goaltender Robin Lehner, who found his game and his life as a member of the New York Islanders, also came in to form a tremendous battery with Fleury, albeit one that attracted a lot of headlines.
But Fleury was more than just a really good player for the Golden Knights. Playing in a city where tourists and entertainment are lifeblood, he pledged $100,000 last season to game-day employees of T-Mobile Arena impacted by the pandemic season pause.
His sunny personality made him an instant fan favorite and he climbed the NHL record books for wins while wearing a Golden Knights jersey.
So this is where the business side of things kicks in. Vegas is still going for that first championship and with a flat cap the reality right now, space was tight. In sending Fleury to Chicago for Mikael Hakkarainen, the Golden Knights and current GM Kelly McCrimmon open up the possibility of something big – a Jack Eichel trade with Buffalo, for instance. Eichel would be the No. 1 center the Knights have never had and the price was always going to be high for the Sabres captain.
But I would imagine that for a lot of Vegas fans, losing Fleury in a salary-dump trade was much too high a price already.