Listen, I’m not trying to say that a Day 2 draft pick is worth more than riding into the playoffs with Marc-Andre Fleury. The future Hall of Fame goalie is an NHL legend and a renowned personality that anybody would want on their team. Aside from that, it’s always better to sneak into the playoffs with a chance to make a deep run rather than lose a season to try to get better draft position.
On the other hand, trading Fleury makes a lot of sense – for the Wild and Fleury.
Fleury isn’t likely to perform at his legendary standard if Minnesota opens a competitive window next season or beyond. He’s 39 years old, performing below average in save percentage (ranked 45th) and goals-against average (34th).
Some of that is influenced by Minnesota’s questionable play in front of him this season, but the analytics that isolates goaltending from defense don’t indicate a turnaround. At five-on-five, Fleury is 22nd out of 64 goalies who have played 10 games in goals-saved above expected (GSAx). Statisticians designed that metric to credit goalies who save more high-danger chances. Worse yet, Fleury is 63rd out of 64 in GSAx on the penalty kill.
Fleury’s performance could suddenly decline as he nears 40, making him a risky bet to bring back as a free agent next year. Fleury and the Wild are on different timelines. Perhaps that wasn’t true at the start of this season. But due to a poor start and a rash of injuries, Minnesota is not in a position to give Fleury the season he deserves this late in his legendary career.
Minnesota must perform like a top-five team for the rest of this season to make the playoffs. Historically, that performance would earn the Wild the 8th seed and the right to play a seven-game series against the best team in the Western Conference.
On January 17, The Athletic predicted Minnesota had only a 28% chance to qualify for the playoffs. That was much higher than other analytical sites, partially because that model can adjust for the return of injured players like Kirill Kaprizov, Jonas Brodin, and Filip Gustavsson without punishing the team for the games it played without them. That was before news broke that captain Jared Spurgeon will get hip and back surgery and is out for the season.
In the middle of January, Flower probably relishes the challenge of an uphill fight to get into the playoffs. But things could look different by the March 8 trade deadline.
It’s important to note that Fleury’s contract includes a no-trade clause (NTC), meaning he can veto a trade if he doesn’t like the destination. That could reduce Minnesota’s return. On the other hand, Fleury most likely wants to be traded to a contender, so the NTC may not be an obstacle. That’s entirely Fleury’s decision.
But if a deal makes sense for Fleury, why would it make sense for the Wild? The return likely wouldn’t be astounding. The Chicago Blackhawks traded Fleury to Minnesota for a conditional second-round pick in March 2022, which had the chance to turn into a first-rounder if Minnesota won two playoff rounds. Chicago also retained $3.5 million of salary. Two years older, it’s safe to assume that Fleury would net less than that return -- perhaps something like a third-round pick.
That return isn’t worth it for Minnesota to blow up its goaltending tandem and endure months of tanking. It’s still not worth it if it gains the Wild a few slots worth of draft position. On the other hand, it may make a lot of sense for Minnesota’s goaltending tandem in 2024-25.
If the Wild dealt Fleury today, they could trade for a backup to replace him or call up Jesper Wallstedt, giving him a chance to earn the backup position. It would also allow the Wild to test Gustavsson with a heavier workload.
Wild goaltending coach Freddy Chabot told The Athletic in the offseason that the team wanted to prepare Gustavsson to start more games. At the time, they likely thought that they were preparing him for a playoff run rather than to be the primary starter. But if the Wild miss the playoffs while rotating Gustavsson and Fleury, they won’t be able to evaluate that training.
Fifty games would be the benchmark if the Wild want to evaluate whether Gustavsson can be a true “starter” rather than just the 1A. That’s how many games the NHL’s 15th-ranked goaltender played last season. To reach that mark, Minnesota would need to start Gustavsson for 26 of their remaining 38 games, which would be about a 70% workload. That’s around a 56-start pace across an 82-game season.
To get Gustavsson to 50 games, Minnesota would have only 12 more starts to split between Fleury and Wallstedt. Whether Wallstedt performs better than his nightmare debut in Dallas, it offers the club more insight into how ready their phenom prospect is to play at the NHL level. That will give the front office some foresight into who to put in net next year. It could also improve Wallstedt’s offseason training if he knows the strengths and weaknesses of his game at the NHL level.
From the Wild’s perspective, trading Fleury might be the only way to salvage value from a lost season. September extensions to Mats Zuccarello, Marcus Foligno, and Ryan Hartman eliminated Minnesota’s best trade chips. On the other hand, if the Wild suddenly go on a winning streak, they’ll have no reason to trade Fleury as they gear up for the playoffs.
Ultimately, two major factors will determine whether Fleury stays or goes:
- Can the Wild sneak into the playoffs?
- Does Fleury want to play anywhere else?
The first will likely have a large impact on the second.
Everyone hopes that it never comes to this. Coming back from the dead to make the playoffs with a chip and a chair will always be better than nosediving for the right to pick a few spots earlier in the draft. More than that, though, Marc-Andre Fleury is the type of player fans want on their team. Executives also want him on their roster, and teammates want him in their locker room.
However, NHL teams must act in the best long-term interests of the franchise. Missing the playoffs with no pieces to sell at the deadline is a cardinal sin of sports asset management.
Even worse, to end Marc-Andre Fleury’s goal-post conversations and his career with a whimper would be a crime to the sport. Fleury should end this season with a chance to write history again, whether that’s in forest green or other colors.
It’s Bill Guerin’s job to ensure there’s an opportunity to make that happen by March 8.
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