After a rough start to the season, the Vegas Golden Knights are in a pretty solid spot. The Knights have now won nine of their last 12 games and sit just five points behind the Pacific Division-leading Calgary Flames.
There are a number of components that have led to the Knights’ recent success — Max Pacioretty is looking like his typical All-Star self again, 22-year-old Alex Tuch is emerging as one of the better power forwards in the NHL, the defense has vastly improved since its early season struggles and the penalty kill has turned out to be one of the top-ranked units in the game.
And then, of course, there’s the downright superb play of goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury.
Fleury, a three-time Stanley Cup winner with the Pittsburgh Penguins, has showed no signs of slowing down after a Conn Smythe-worthy performance in the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Through 28 starts, the 15-year veteran leads all NHL goalies with 17 wins and five shutouts (two of which came on back-to-back nights in late November).
The Knights have leaned heavily on Fleury since selecting him in the 2017 NHL Expansion Draft. And aside from the occasional blemish, he’s done nothing but consistently deliver.
But maybe the Knights are leaning on him a little too heavily.
Fleury, who turned 34 on Nov. 28, is likely to make his 11th straight start on Wednesday when the Knights take on the New York Islanders at Barclays Center. It’s uncommon to see goalies playing as often as Fleury has this season, and the logic behind his continual usage is quite simple.
“The guy’s playing great. The guy’s been giving us a chance to win all the time and he is playing great,” said Golden Knights head coach Gerard Gallant following Vegas’ 4-2 victory over the Dallas Stars. “We’re not in first place like we were last year. We’re trying to catch teams. When a guy plays that good, he is going to play.”
Fleury is one of the most decorated active goaltenders in the NHL, and it’s easy to understand why the Knights turn to him as often as they do. However, as noted by friend of the site Jesse Granger of The Athletic, no goalie in the salary cap era has ever won a Stanley Cup in a year in which they played 70 or more regular-season games. Right now, Fleury is on pace to play in 72, which, at the age of 34, is bordering insanity.
Backup netminder Malcolm Subban, who is close to a decade younger than Fleury, is fully capable of holding his own in the cage when given the opportunity. Just last season, the 24-year-old won 13 games in 19 starts while owning a .910 save percentage and 2.68 goals against average. This season, though, Subban’s had his fair share of struggles, with an abysmal .859 save percentage and 4.03 goals against average.
Subban certainly hasn’t been perfect, but he also hasn’t necessarily played in many favorable situations. Three of his four starts came on the second leg of a back-to-back, each of which against some of the NHL’s elite teams (Penguins, Bruins, Flames). Defenseman Nate Schmidt even singled Subban out as a player who’s been the recipient of unjust criticism throughout the season, partially as a result of poor play in the defensive zone.
With just five appearances through 32 games, it’s fair for one to wonder if the Knights brass question Subban’s potential as an NHL netminder. That, however, is flat out wrong.
“[Subban] is going to get his chance sooner or later here, and we have confidence in him,” said Gallant. “But when you have the best goalie going every night, you feel good about that. We talk to [Fleury] every day and he feels good and he’s fresh, he feels good right now, but we know we can’t play him 75 games, and we don’t intend to do that.”
Playing Fleury in 75 games may not be the plan, but it’s the road the Knights are going down. And for an older netminder who just signed a three-year, $21 million contract extension that runs through the 2021-22 season, the Knights could eventually be burdened by Fleury’s $7 million annual cap hit once fatigue and the general side effects of aging inevitably catch up to the three-time All-Star.
Perhaps Fleury really is just a superhuman puck-stopping machine incapable of being defeated by the test of time. But the odds of that are not great. For the Knights to truly benefit from the extension they awarded to Fleury over the summer, they will need to fight off the temptation of starting the face of the franchise as often as they currently are. And if they fail to do so, the road ahead could be arduous.