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Golden Knights begin road to unknown after trading for Robin Lehner

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If you thought it was confusing before, it’s about to get more weird.

NHL: FEB 15 Blackhawks at Flames Photo by Brett Holmes/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Kelly McCrimmon said it himself.

It’s rare that goaltenders of Robin Lehner’s caliber are available at the trade deadline.

When you have a chance to improve your overall goaltending situation like the Vegas Golden Knights did on Monday, you take that plunge into pool and deal with the consequences when you return to surface.

But by the time you come back for air, you’re the equivalent of John Travolta in “Pulp Fiction,” looking for answers around every turn.

“We all want to win. When you have the chance to add really good players to your team, that’s what we want to do,” McCrimmon said.

That’s the path the Golden Knights are on right now. They’re going for it, not caring about what could come next year. They’re hoping that the stunning acquisition of Lehner — in return for Malcolm Subban and defensive prospect Slava Demin to the Chicago Blackhawks — is the missing piece for Vegas’ run at a Stanley Cup.

That could very well be the case. The Golden Knights add a goaltender in Lehner, a Vezina finalist in 2019, with Fleury, a three-time Cup winner, to provide what could be the most dangerous 1-2 punch in the league.

Long term, though, it gets tricky.

The official terms: Vegas acquired Lehner from the Toronto Maple Leafs so that Toronto could retain 50 percent of Lehner’s salary ($2.5 million), only for the Leafs to flip him to Vegas to retain 22 percent ($1.1 million). The cap gymnastics to get this trade to work absolutely worked in Vegas’ favor.

But Lehner, an unrestricted free agent come July 1, could likely command more than $5 million on the open market — the number he signed for a one-year deal to Chicago last July 1 — and make a mess of the Golden Knights’ goaltending situation.

Fleury is already locked in for $7 million the next two seasons. Lehner wouldn’t dare sign for at least $5 million to be Fleury’s backup. Unlike the trades for Max Pacioretty and Mark Stone over the past two years, the trade for Lehner does not come with an extension.

“We haven’t discussed it. He’s on an expiring contract. That’ll take care of itself,” McCrimmon said. “His contract will expire. At that time, we’ll have the opportunity to speak with him. We have the opportunity to speak with him any time. That wasn’t part of the decision making process. The decision was improving our goaltending in the stretch drive, improving our goaltending in the playoffs and to complement the work that we’ve done to build the team that we’ve built.”

It’s good in theory. The Golden Knights have won six in a row, including a 6-5 win in overtime at Anaheim on Sunday — what would end up being Subban’s final start with Vegas — and lead the Edmonton Oilers by three points for first place in the Pacific Division. Vegas will see the Oilers three more times before the season ends, including Wednesday’s tilt at T-Mobile Arena. Edmonton made moves themselves to bolster the offense, acquiring Andreas Athanasiou and Tyler Ennis. Vegas has two back-to-backs to close the year, but 11 games are against division opponents, so the chance of resting Fleury beyond those back-to-backs seems slim.

If McCrimmon feels like the Golden Knights have the pieces in place to win this year, this trade pays off, no questions asked. The challenge for Peter DeBoer is how to balance the starts between Lehner and Fleury in the final 18 games, and how he handles the two during the playoffs.

“I can’t project or predict how it’s going to play out,” McCrimmon said. “We have great goaltending. That’s a good thing.”

McCrimmon mentioned Lehner said he’s excited to come to Vegas and contribute in any way he can, but that can only get you so far when you have to look beyond this year, especially if the Golden Knights don’t win the Cup. Per CapFriendly, the Golden Knights are looking at $11 million in cap space tied to only 12 players come this offseason. They can likely retain some players on the cheap — William Carrier, Chandler Stephenson, Nicolas Roy, Ryan Reaves and even the newly-acquired Nick Cousins — while adding prospects here and there, but if Lehner walks July 1, the gap from Lehner to finding a serviceable backup to Fleury is large.

At the end of the day, McCrimmon is taking a risk.

“Just that if anything ever happened to Marc-Andre Fleury, that we weren’t strong enough to win playoff games if we got to that point,” he said.

It’s not the first risk he’s taken this year — hello, Gerard Gallant — and until the calendar moves to Dec. 31, it won’t be the last.

The Golden Knights went from supposedly being in the market for one more defenseman, to addressing a need in a way that could work now, but backfire later. Who knows? Maybe Lehner is put under some mind control come July 1 and signs for $5 million per year over the next six years, this becomes a moot point and he replaces Fleury in a few years.

If there’s a parade down Las Vegas Boulevard in June, the trade for Lehner will pay off. If not, that’s one hell of a rental for Vegas that better have a contingency plan in place.

“You need to take it for exactly what it is,” McCrimmon said. “We acquired a great goalie to partner with a great goalie, and that makes us better.”