WASHINGTON — Now that the Vegas Golden Knights have advanced to the Stanley Cup final, it might be natural for some GMs to feel seller’s remorse with some of the decisions that were made at last year’s expansion draft.
Consider: Vegas was given Florida’s Reilly Smith and a fourth-round pick for selecting Jonathan Marchessault; Minnesota offered Alex Tuch and a third-round pick for taking Erik Haula; and Columbus peddled a first- and a second-round draft pick if the Golden Knights would select William Karlsson and agree to swallow David Clarkson’s contract.
Combined, those five players have scored 25 goals and 63 points in these playoffs.
And then there’s goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who has played so well that he could still be the odds-on favourite to win the Conn Smythe Trophy even if Vegas doesn’t win the Stanley Cup. The Pittsburgh Penguins, with Matt Murray as their No. 1 goalie and eager to shed the $11.5 million left on the final two seasons of Fleury contract, not only left him unprotected in the expansion draft but included a second-round pick in 2020 for Vegas to take him off their hands.
It was a deal that Penguins GM Jim Rutherford needed to make for the good of his team. But it was also a deal that he doesn’t regret. The person who has benefited the most is Fleury, and that’s a win-win where Rutherford is concerned.
“Anybody that knows him is happy for him,” Rutherford said in a phone interview on Monday. “Everybody’s cheering for him. I am one of those people.
“Over the years, frustration had set in over his playing time and so he got to the place where he wanted to go. And he’s taken that opportunity to the limit and obviously, he’s put himself in a position to win a Cup and we’re very, very happy for him.”
Outside of the crease, Vegas is a team with improbable stars who have punched above their weight class since Day 1, Fleury’s play in the post-season really shouldn’t be that surprising. A first-overall pick in 2003, he won his first Stanley Cup with the Penguins as a starter in 2009 and won back-to-back championships in a supporting role in 2016 and 2017.
Still, what Fleury has done this year has been special. He has lost only three of 15 games in the playoffs, posting a 1.68 goals-against average and a .947 save percentage with four shutouts. In Sunday’s Game 5 clincher against Winnipeg in the conference final, Fleury stopped 31 of 32 shots for a 2-1 win.
“Fundamentally, he’s been so good,” Rutherford said. “He’s in position all the time — in position for rebounds and in position for when it’s a broken play. There’s no surprise he has the ability to do what he’s been doing.”
Ideally, Rutherford would have preferred Fleury to continue doing this for the Penguins. But it was clear that Fleury was not happy as Murray’s backup. Whether it was Vegas or somewhere else, Rutherford knew it was time for the 33-year-old to play eleswhere.
“We stretched that two-goalie situation as far as we could,” Rutherford said. “I’m glad we did, because last year (Fleury) played in the first two series and played very well and got us to the conference final. And, of course, Murray took over again and won the last two series. But for cap reasons and the fact that Murray was 10 years younger and had won two Cups for Pittsburgh, (letting him go) was the obvious thing to do.
“No question, both guys wanted to play. To Marc’s credit, he was really good about it despite the fact that he wasn’t playing as much as he would have liked to.”
Washington Capitals defenceman Brooks Orpik, himself a former Penguin for 10 years playing in front of Fleury, believes the way it ended for Fleury in Pittsburgh was motivation for him to show the Penguins — and the entire hockey world — that he was still an elite No. 1.
“I don’t think he was treated properly his last two years in Pittsburgh, so I think he’s probably enjoying himself even more because of that,” said Orpik, whose wife sent Fleury’s wife a text of congratulations Sunday. “It obviously wasn’t the situation he wanted. In talking to him, it wasn’t easy. But he kept his mouth shut and was a good teammate.”
It’s that team-first approach that made Fleury so popular in Pittsburgh and has also endeared him to his new fans in Vegas. It’s also, according to former teammate Chris Kunitz, partially why he’s been so successful over his career. Guys want to go to war for him.
“One of the best teammates you could ask for,” said Tampa Bay’s Kunitz, who spent nine years with Fleury in Pittsburgh. “He’s obviously playing with a lot of confidence and you can see the way he’s acting and smiling. I think that engages his team to play at another level.”
It’s sort of strange to hear players talking about a potential Stanley Cup final rival in this way. But Fleury is different. As Rutherford said, whether you are playing with or against him, it’s difficult not to root for him.
“Any time you see a former teammate and good friend succeed, you’re happy for them,” Kunitz said. “You go through different situations in this business and there probably was no better person to deal with those things than him … credit to him and the character he’s shown.”
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