The Pittsburgh Penguins have a big problem in goal right now. They rank just 30th in a 31 team league with a .889% 5v5 save percentage so far in 2020-21. This comes on the season after Tristan Jarry replaced the guy who replaced THE guy when Matt Murray’s Pittsburgh career flamed out much quicker than anticipated back in 2017 when the Penguins sent Fleury off to the expansion Vegas Golden Knights.
Fleury was initially the center-piece in Vegas, the “face of the franchise” and the smiling, cheery goalie helped lead VGK to the Stanley Cup Final in their very first season in 2017-18 as the upstart “misfit” players ended up out-performing all reasonable expectations. But since then it’s been no storybook ending for Fleury, who lost his starting job last season to Robin Lehner, who has since rewarded with a long-term contract and seemingly the confidence of a newly installed coach and seen some turmoil with his agent tweeting a notorious photoshop of the goalie literally stabbed in the back with the coach’s name on it. (This league!)
“He stands up for his players and that is admirable...but that was a personal assault on Peter DeBoer...offside in every single regard.”@CraigJButton on Allan Walsh’s tweet of client Marc-Andre Fleury with a ‘DeBoer’ sword through his back: https://t.co/qGNNdENpyO#TSNHockey pic.twitter.com/7BORLop6ms— TSN Hockey (@TSNHockey) August 23, 2020
In that sense, the story writes itself. The Penguins are searching for stability in net. Fleury, the most accomplished goalie in Pittsburgh franchise history, has fallen out of favor in Vegas. Already one of the more popular players in franchise lore as a person and personality, many a fan has rallied to connect the dots, perhaps more with emotion than based in practicality.
After all, Fleury is 36 years old. Vegas signed him to a contract through 2022 with a hefty $7.0 million cap hit. Both the Pens and Golden Knights have significant salary cap issues. Even if both sides may be interested in a trade, could it be possible? Is it even possible?
Recent rumblings say it may have been bandied about:
Bob McKenzie (TSN) reported Wednesday that Penguins tried to acquire Marc-Andre Fleury during GM search time period. I’d heard they’d made inquiries. But those could be same things.— Rob Rossi (@Real_RobRossi) February 11, 2021
As I wrote this past summer, Fleury does prefer to end career with Penguins.
The interesting aspect here is that talks or at least consideration took place when Patrik Allvin was temporarily in the Pens’ general manager chair on an interim basis. The same Allvin who has been out of scouting and in a management/front office role for a matter of weeks. It might be a positive that no drastic or major movement came during this period.
But McKenzie and Rossi weren’t alone. Keith Jones, an analyst who knows new Pens GM Ron Hextall very well also recently chimed in with his take on the matter on a podcast:
“You hear a name like Marc-Andre Fleury out there and you start to think, ‘Boy that would make things really interesting in Pittsburgh if they could scoop up and get him to return to the fold so to speak,’” Jones said. “I think that’s a legitimate option, though, and I think that’s one area, obviously Ron being a former goaltender, that he should have a pretty good feel for who could come in and give them some immediate relief and not mess them up with the salary cap. That’ll be the biggest challenge.”
Aside from the salary cap, the other challenge is that, well maybe Vegas doesn’t want to trade Fleury right now. Their new-ish GM, Kelly McCrimmon, said publicly as recently as mid-October that Fleury would not be traded. Vegas is carrying $12 million of the $81.5 million cap limit in goalie salaries with Fleury and Lehner, but perhaps they are comfortable with the situation. And, if so and they can manage all the egos and personalities involved (see above sword-through-the-back-tweet), retaining goalie depth might work for them.
And Fleury is 5-1-0 this season with a 1.68 GAA and a .929 save%. Though his performance slumped last season, he’s playing well enough right now that would make a team not want to entertain moving him, unless it made sense for them.
There could lie the other big issue. Even if the Pens had interest in Fleury, how do they fit his $7.0 million cap hit and make a deal worth Vegas’ while?
Right now, it doesn’t seem likely. Which is quite the turn from a few months ago, when MAF’s status looked untenable and blocked by Lehner. Lehner, while a very good goalie, has also never really been a “number one workhorse” type of goalie. At a hefty 6’4 and 240 pounds, he doesn’t really fit the profile of a netminder who gets stronger by playing 60+ games a season.
Optimally speaking, it doesn’t make a ton of sense for Vegas to carry $12 million in goalie cap hits forever, but they only have until after next season with Fleury under contract. Save for Alec Martinez, the Golden Knights already have all of their important players already under contract for 2021-22. Financially speaking, it is realistic that with a minor tweak here or there they can afford to replace or re-sign Martinez and keep virtually an identical team if they so chose, while carrying their luxury of having two high-priced goalies.
In that regard it is sort of humorous how all the twists and turns in this saga have happened, but the one constant is that the stars have never aligned to make a Fleury return to Pittsburgh make practical sense for all parties, certainly not since Fleury signed his contract extension that bumped up his salary cap number.
The one constant in this whole situation has been change. It’s been a roller coaster ride of highs and lows for Fleury and Vegas, with on again and off again levels of how happy each has seemed with the other. At present, Fleury is playing and playing well. Vegas is not under the pressure that perhaps they may have felt a few months ago to move on. A few months ago, Pittsburgh had no reason to want Fleury back with 2020 All-Star Tristan Jarry being given the reigns of the starting job. Jarry’s stock has gone down with a poor start, yet at the same time Fleury’s stint with Vegas has moved away from sour to a sense of detente.
Could Marc-Andre Fleury ever return to Pittsburgh as a player? It’s impossible to rule out, especially for as long as the Pens are in “win now” mode and have big question marks in their net. But for all the supposed interest, a path does not look in place that makes sense for either team to traverse very far into a serious discussion right now.
That said, for all the twists and turns that both Marc-Andre Fleury and the Pittsburgh Penguins have gone through since he departed in the summer of 2017, no one can quite know what could be around the corner next, or what the future course of events could spell out.
The only way the Fleury potentially to Pittsburgh saga will end is when he retires (possibly/probably at least on a one-day contract with the Pens) or when the Penguins actually do bring him back. Until then, rumors and reports and wishful thinking from many involved will always be in play, even if the major meaningful circumstances will seemingly always conspire against making a reunion actually add up for all the different parties involved.