The Vegas Golden Knights have a good problem, all things considered. On Wednesday, their 6-0 win over the listless San Jose Sharks to end their regular season earned them the Jennings Trophy, awarded to the NHL team that’s allowed the fewest goals all year. That honor gets shared between 36-year-old Marc-André Fleury, who’s been the face of the franchise ever since it began, and Robin Lehner, the 29-year-old who’s played on four different teams since 2018 and arrived in Vegas last February poised to supplant Fleury for good.
Though Lehner started all but one game in each of Vegas’s three playoff series last year, the shift away from Fleury turned out to be temporary. In 2021, the three-time Stanley Cup champ and third-winningest goalie ever shockingly reestablished himself as one of the best in the NHL. Fleury’s 2019-20 was a career low point and looked to be the mark of the goalie’s obvious and expected decline after serving as a mainstay of the league since 2003. But against all logic, and after Lehner’s health issues only permitted him to start 19 games for the Knights, this 2021 season has turned out to be perhaps the best of Fleury’s career, as shown by the fact that this is his first-ever Jennings win, and he did it while carrying most of the load, going 26-10 between the pipes for Vegas. Those wins have put the Knights in position to scoreboard-watch Colorado’s game on Thursday against the Kings, where an Avs loss would hand VGK a West Division title, a Presidents’ Trophy, and (crucially) a much easier first-round opponent.
And while he’s picked up points, Fleury has also piled up the theatrical, highlight-reel saves.
If this all makes Lehner, who just signed a five-year, $25 million deal with the team before the season started, sound like an afterthought, that’s unfortunate. Though his limited appearances with the Knights haven’t been up to the unspeakably dominant level that raised his profile as a member of the Islanders in 2018-19, they’re still 13-4-2 with him in net, and over the last few years he’s been a more effective goalie than Fleury, and even just his below-normal .913 save percentage in his games this year make him a more appealing option than several other playoff teams possess (*COUGH* Washington *COUGH*).
“For me, hands-down the best goalie tandem in the league,” Vegas head coach Pete DeBoer said after the Jennings Trophy became official on Wednesday. “They got some good help from our commitment to defending. But those two were outstanding every night for us.”
You can probably see where this is going—a classic goalie controversy, the stalwart veteran who’s still got some gas left in the tank vs. the young standout who perhaps thought that he’d finally settled somewhere he could be number one long-term. Any hockey fan knows that only one of these two can be the guy as we get into the games that really count, but their coach is trying his best to avoid throwing any fuel on the debate.
“We’ve got great goaltending all year from both guys,” DeBoer said back on Monday. “We’re going to need both guys in the playoffs, too.”
Just one goalie can be on the ice at any given time, however, and with the thin margins that always define the NHL playoffs, the wrong choice by DeBoer could be almost instantly fatal for his team. I think recent history demands that the No. 1 be Fleury. Lehner is still the future of this team, of course, but right now, particularly as he’s ended the season with an astonishing nine wins in a row (none of which have featured more than two goals against), Fleury sure seems like the one you’d turn to and trust the most for a deep postseason run.
The numbers alone make the case, but the sheer emotional impact of seeing him in net, playing at the highest level of his life, trying to right the wrongs of 2018’s finale, also helps to sell it. Fleury has been the cornerstone of the Vegas Golden Knights for as long as they’ve been playing hockey. Now he’s earned at least one more shot at being the cornerstone of a Stanley Cup winner.