Probably one of the most surprising developments to take place in the NHL bubble a season ago was the decision of Vegas Golden Knights coach Pete DeBoer to send Marc-Andre Fleury to the bench in favor of trade deadline acquisition Robin Lehner.
Fleury had been a starter his entire career, won a Stanley Cup as a starter, and had been the face of the Golden Knights franchise from the moment it arrived in the NHL, including the inaugural season when Fleury helped lead them to the Stanley Cup Final. But for as surprising as the decision was, it was also probably justified as Lehner had been the better goalie for at least the previous two seasons. It created some off-ice agent drama, but it was still a sound hockey decision given the season-long performances of the two goalies.
When the Golden Knights re-signed Lehner in the offseason to a five-year contract — while Fleury still had two years remaining on his deal and was not traded — it formed one of the most expensive goalie duos in the league and brought on several questions as to how the playing time would be distributed. The safe assumption was that Vegas was going to use both goalies for as long as it could (both are capable starters) until it had to make a decision. That plan was pretty much what DeBoer confirmed at the start of the season.
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Now that the Golden Knights are more than a month into their season, it is looking like Fleury is doing everything he can to regain control of the starting job. If nothing else, he is putting together a pretty strong argument that he should be the one getting the bulk of the playing time for the foreseeable future.
He has not only been the better of the two goalies in Vegas this season, he has been one of the best goalies in the league and a big part of why the Golden Knights are off to such a dominant start.
Entering Tuesday’s game against Colorado, Fleury has won seven of his first eight starts. The only loss was a 1-0 decision to the Anaheim Ducks this past week where he stopped 27 out of 28 shots. He followed that up by winning the next two games and only allowing a single goal. His most recent outing was a 1-0 shutout of his own where he stopped all 30 shots he faced against the Colorado Avalanche. That stretch lifted his season save percentage to a league-leading .944 entering play on Tuesday.
He has only had one game this season with a save percentage lower than .910, and only two lower than .930. It is some of the best hockey he has played in years, including his entire time with Vegas.
If you go back to the 2019-20 season, he did not have a single eight-game stretch where his save percentage went above .940, and only once did he have a stretch where it went above .928. He had only one stretch above .940 during the 2018-19 season.
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On one hand, nobody maintains this level of production over a full season so you have to assume at some point that save percentage is going to regress back to a more sustainable level. Fleury’s good, but he’s not “.944 save percentage over a full season” level good. Goalie production is no different than goal scoring production in that its full of peaks and valleys over the course of a season. You are going to see hot streaks and cold streaks that balance out over the season. Nobody is consistent in their production from start to finish. Right now, Fleury is on one of those hot streaks where the puck probably looks like a beach ball to him. At the same time, a healthy Lehner has a track record of being a better goalie than he has shown in his limited starts so far this season.
But if the goal early on was to split the starts and see which goalie emerges with the better performance, it is pretty obvious which goalie is on the right track to do that.
The Golden Knights still have a great situation in net with two bonafide starting caliber goalies on the roster. It is just a matter of which one produces more to get more playing time. After losing his job a few months ago, Fleury seems to be on his way toward reclaiming it.
Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.