The Pittsburgh Penguins deserve to pat their backs raw after their 3-0 start to their first-round series with the Columbus Blue Jackets. It’s not just the result they should relish, nor just the exciting breakout of yet another crafty young winger in Jake Guentzel. Most of all, GM Jim Rutherford should congratulate himself for not trading Marc-Andre Fleury. Yet.
No matter how many of us believe there’s no way the tandem situation with Matt Murray ends well, that the expansion draft will force the Pens to lose one of their netminders, there’s no denying Murray’s Game 1 warmup injury highlighted the value of an experienced No. 2. Fleury has been mostly dynamite in relief, posting a .947 save percentage across three games, looking far more like the youngster who guided the Penguins to Stanley Cup final appearances in 2008 and 2009, winning it all the second time, than the maligned “choker” with a .907 career post-season save percentage.
Fleury can still play. He’s 32, which is more like 27 in goalie years. Per Sportsnet’s Nick Kypreos, Murray’s injury is not of the day-to-day variety and could cost him Round 1 and beyond, but it appears Fleury will hold the fort just fine. It’s a fair guess that Murray gets the crease back once healthy, but it’s not etched in cement. We don’t know.
What we do know is Fleury picked an ideal time to play his best hockey of 2016-17, as he’s upped his trade value, which should matter a lot to him and Rutherford, as something has to give with Pittsburgh’s goaltenders this June. The expansion draft only allows each NHL team to protect one stopper and, because of his no-movement clause, Fleury must be protected as long as he’s a Penguin. That would leave Murray exposed to the Vegas Golden Knights. Murray is 22, already won a Stanley Cup, has 41 wins in 62 career regular season appearances and has a .925 career SP, which would rate as the highest in NHL history if he had enough minutes to qualify. Golden Knights GM George McPhee would be crazy not to pounce if Murray was left flapping in the breeze. The Penguins could propose out a side deal, perhaps compensating Vegas with a draft pick for not claiming Murray, but if a goalie of Murray’s age and skill becomes available, you don't accept a side deal. You snatch the franchise goalie.
Fleury could agree to waive his no-movement clause and allow himself to be exposed in the expansion draft, but would Fleury want to join a startup franchise? He has a strong chance to finish top-three in NHL history in goalie wins. Then again, since he already has multiple Cup rings, chasing a championship might not be as important to him as it is to some veterans. He’d be joining an exciting new situation with an experienced GM and a respected coach in Gerard Gallant. Fleury would also likely be the Knights’ biggest name. His gregarious personality would make him an ideal first franchise ambassador. Vegas is the first expansion team of the salary cap era and thus might have a quicker trajectory to success than any other expansion team has. Maybe it’s not a bad place to land after all.
If Fleury waived his NMC but went unclaimed in the expansion draft, he’d still be in Pittsburgh and forced to hold a backup role again. And as much as he’s taken that assignment in stride over the past season, as classily as he’s handled himself, he still wants to play. All goalies do. Fleury’s best route is thus to be traded before the expansion draft to a decent team. Considering how well he’s played this post-season and that he only has two years left on his contract at a $5.75-million cap hit, that’s a more realistic possibility than it was a year ago.
Which teams might have interest in Fleury’s services at this point? Even if UFA Ben Bishop is the first off-season domino to fall, Fleury would be one of the most attractive options available, especially if he keeps up his stellar run in these playoffs. Multiple teams project to seek goaltending help this off-season. The Dallas Stars leap off the page as the most logical option. They’re a good fit for a veteran goaltender, as they’d like to win now with stars Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin in their primes. One of Dallas’ stoppers, Antti Niemi or Kari Lehtonen, would have to go the other way (a) for the money to work for Dallas and (b) to ensure the Penguins still expose a goalie who meets the league’s expansion exposure requirements.
The Calgary Flames had decent if inconsistent success with Brian Elliott and Chad Johnson this year, but both are unrestricted free agents. Might that open up a market for Fleury? The Philadelphia Flyers re-signed Michal Neuvirth but not at a price that projects for him to start. They’d also be an attractive geographical landing spot for Fleury, as remaining in Pennsylvania would mean he didn’t have to uproot his family. Still, GM Ron Hextall doesn’t seem likely to bite, as he’s been extremely conservative in his tenure so far.
A sleeper destination could be Winnipeg. The Jets got disappointing efforts from Connor Hellebuyck and Michael Hutchinson this season and have amassed so many good young prospects that they need to stop stockpiling and start aggressively trying to win. Fleury has been praised in Pittsburgh for being a classy and welcoming mentor and partner to Murray. An apprenticeship with Hellebuyck, whose pedigree is on par with what Murray’s was a couple years ago, would be a boon to the Jets. The question is whether Fleury would be willing to waive his NMC to go to Winnipeg, which typically isn’t an alluring destination for new players. He’d also run the risk of losing playing time and sliding into another backup role if Hellebuyck improved enough.
Now we wait. Paradoxically, Fleury’s situation should play out suddenly and dramatically when summer arrives, yet it isn’t even a thought right now for him and his team. He and the Penguins will focus exclusively on chasing another Cup. The tough decisions will come – fast – when the Pens’ season ends.