If it feels like a particularly weird NHL offseason, blame the novel coronavirus. A drop in revenue from empty arenas meant a salary cap that stayed put, and reportedly won’t move for a couple of seasons. Teams’ long-term budgeting plans—counting on a slowly but steadily rising cap—have been blown to smithereens, and front offices find themselves unexpectedly hard up against the limit. In practical terms, it means that for many teams cap space is now the most valuable thing on the market. The Flyers traded Shayne Gostisbehere to Arizona for literally nothing. The Canucks dumped a bunch of rough short-term contracts in exchange for taking one mega-rough long-term deal. Players are getting bought out like there’s no tomorrow. It all feels a little cynical and unsatisfying because none of these deals are actually about making teams better, full stop, but rather “better” only under the artificial spending limits beloved by owners. It’s spreadsheet ninjutsu and the hockey part is ancillary, and the human part not even that.
Which is how we get Golden Knights goalie Marc-André Fleury getting shipped by Vegas to Chicago in exchange for a minor leaguer who’s not quite enough of a prospect to be worth you seeking out or remembering his name. What matters is that the Knights have a cap crunch, and Fleury carries a $7 million cap hit for one more season, and they have another fine No. 1 option in Robin Lehner. Bare hard logic said they should trade Fleury, and even if they weren’t able to pry a substantial asset out of anyone for him, it still made sense to them to move him for a bag of pucks. Not having Fleury, in the end, is more valuable to Vegas than having him. You can read and understand all this and even accept it and still find it fucked up that the indisputably smart play for a perennial Cup contender is to give up the literal reigning Vezina winner for nothing in return.
That’s how the system is designed to work, mind you; Vegas is the symptom, not the cause. But the Knights do seem uniquely cold-blooded when it comes to this sort of thing. Business is business, I suppose, but it’s never pleasant when a franchise doesn’t even bother to pretend it has a fraction of the loyalty to its players that it demands from them. That manifests in things like nobody from the Golden Knights telling Fleury he’s being traded for more than a half-hour after the news was leaked to reporters.
Which especially sucks since Fleury by all accounts loves living in Nevada, and doesn’t want to uproot his family again. He’s even reportedly contemplated retirement if the Knights traded him, and according to his agent that’s still a possibility.
The trade makes sense for Vegas, as we’ve said. It makes sense for Chicago, who could be a borderline playoff team (though they seem like they think they’re further along in a rebuild than they truly are) and had the opportunity to improve their goaltending without giving up anything but cap space they weren’t using. It makes sense from every angle but that of common sense, which would dictate that if a veteran player likes living where he lives and playing where he plays and is still under contract, putting up the best season of anyone in the world at his position should be enough to get his team to honor that contract. But that’s not sports work under the salary cap, and it’s especially not how the NHL operates in the flat cap era. Instead we’re beholden to a lot of cold logic and not much hockey or heart. Maybe it’d be naive to expect otherwise, but that doesn’t mean you can’t begrudge the absence.