The biggest reason the Golden Knights’ playoff run came to an end was the fact they were unable to solve Stars goalie Anton Khudobin in the Western Conference Final.
Despite a significant edge in shot attempts, shots on goals, scoring chances, etc., they managed just eight goals in the five game series. All four of their losses were by a single goal, including two in overtime. So close, yet so far away.
It was all part of a larger eight-game slump where their offense went cold at the absolute worst time of the season, managing just 12 goals over their final eight playoff games. They went just 2-6 over that stretch despite a massive territorial advanatge. There will be plenty of discussion as to what caused that slump.
But none of that will be the primary discussion going into the offseason.
That discussion will center around the goaltending situation, where the team has to figure out what to do with Robin Lehner and Marc-Andre Fleury.
It was the biggest talking point in the playoffs. It will be the biggest talking point in the offseason. And it will be a significant talking point even after they make their decision.
To recap: Fleury had been the Golden Knights’ No. 1 goalie and face of the franchise from the very beginning. At this year’s trade deadline they acquired Lehner to improve their depth in the position, resulting in coach Pete DeBoer deciding Lehner gave them the best chance to win.
This was not a particularly popular decision — even prompting some rebellion from Fleury’s agent — even if it was ultimately the correct decision.
[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]
Now the Golden Knights have an issue on their hands. Fleury still has two years remaining on his contract ($7 million salary cap hit per season) while Lehner, the goalie deemed by DeBoer to be the better of the two this postseason, is an unrestricted free agent.
How do the Golden Knights play this? Let’s look at the options.
• Scenario one: Re-sign Lehner and keep both goalies
I will call this the “ideal, but probably impossible scenario.”
There is a lot to be said for having two good goalies on your roster, and it is probably the way the league is trending. The days of Martin Brodeur and Miikka Kiprusoff playing 73 regular season gams and every playoff game for your team are gone and not coming back anytime soon. You need two quality goalies to split the time. Fleury and Lehner would give the Golden Knights what is probably the best duo in the league.
The problems with this scenario, though, are plentiful.
First, it probably wouldn’t go over well with either goalie. They will both want to play, they will both want to be the No. 1, and even though Fleury himself probably wouldn’t rock the boat, his agent almost certainly would and it is hard to envision anyone being happy here over an 82-game season.
Second, the salary cap ramifications would be killer as it would probably cost around $15M to keep both on the roster.
That would require money — and talent — leaving the roster elsewhere.
• Scenario two: Let Lehner walk and Keep Fleury
Otherwise known as, “the easiest decision.”
Or, in my words, the cowards way out.
Vegas knows it already has Fleury signed for two more years, everybody loves him, there is still a chance he can play at a high level, and he just slides right back into his spot.
That all happens while Lehner hits the free agent market and tries to get the No. 1 starting job and big payday he has earned with his play over the past couple of years.
There is virtually no risk with this decision. It is the easiest and probably most popular decision.
• Scenario three: Keep Lehner and trade/buyout Fleury
Now we are getting interesting.
This is “the most sensible hockey decision,” and it is really not that complicated.
Lehner is seven years younger than Fleury and has been the far superior goalie over the past two seasons. He probably will be again next season.
You keep the better goalie, it is more manageable under the salary cap than keeping both goalies, and you get rid of the internal goalie competition and drama that would come with both of them there.
Fleury might still have some productive hockey ahead of him, but there is a lot of mileage on that career and at some point as he gets into his mid-late 30s he is going to slow down. Father Time is always unbeaten.
Fleury’s contract is significant, but there should still be a trade market out there for him, especially with the number of contenders that could be in the goalie market this summer (Carolina, Edmonton, Calgary … maybe Colorado?).
According to Capfriendly, a buyout would result in a salary cap hit of $2-3M over the next four years if they chose that path.
• Scenario four: You lose both goalies
Ah, yes, the doomsday scenario.
This also seems like the least likely situation to unfold because it seems like a near certainty that one will remain.
Here’s how this one happens: Lehner leaves in free agency for a bigger deal, guaranteed starting job, and the relationship with Fleury is strained so much that he asks out.
Now you are left with nothing, and forced to go into the free agent or trade market.
In the end, one of those four scenarios is going to play out, and it will bring a ton of second-guessing.
Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.