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NHL - US Sports: Can Vegas Golden Knights solve goalie problem?

Two years after having a netminder tandem in Robin Lehner and Marc-Andre Fleury which allowed the fewest goals in the NHL, the Vegas Golden Knights find themselves in a pickle, having allowed Fleury to leave and with Lehner requiring hip surgery.

Fleury, now of the Minnesota Wild, was a victim of Vegas' salary-cap squeeze, but their decision to trust the form and health of Lehner has proved costly and may require them to act before the puck drops for the new season in October.

Lehner's struggles

Lehner's injury is the latest in a series of ailments which has seen him miss significant periods of time and his form fluctuate.

Shoulder surgery ruled him out of the end of the 2021/22 NHL season in which the Golden Knights missed the playoffs for the first time in their five-year history.

The 31-year-old, who also had shoulder surgery in May 2021, was 23-17-2 with a .907 save-percentage and 2.83 goals-against average (GAA) in 44 games.

Lehner signed a five year, $25-million contract with the Golden Knights in 2020 which is his fifth NHL team.

In-house solutions

The Golden Knights head into the new season with a tandem of Logan Thompson and Laurent Brossoit, as well as new acquisition Michael Hutchinson.

Thompson is projected to start after a solid start to his NHL career last year. In 19 games (17 starts), Thompson went 10-5-3 with a .914 save-percentage and 2.68 GAA and his confidence visibly grew the more time he was given in net.

However, the sample size of his work is small, and with expectations to not only get back into the playoffs but also contend for the Stanley Cup, it would be a risk for Vegas to put their full faith into the rookie.

Brossoit was 10-9-3 with a .895 save percentage and 2.90 GAA and in 24 games (21 starts) last season which was his first in Vegas.

Over eight NHL seasons, Brossoit has never played more than 20 games and is unlikely to be considered for the starting role.

Similarly, 32-year-old Hutchinson is a career-long back up making 137 appearances (116 starts) over 11 NHL seasons.

Trust in Thompson

Vegas may opt to give Thompson the opportunity to prove himself as a legitimate number one in the NHL.

After all, he has succeeded at every level to this point with a .927 save percentage in 40 ECHL games and .929 save percentage in 50 AHL games.

A major selling point of trusting Thompson is that it frees up significant cap space for the Golden Knights to use elsewhere.

Thompson has a cap hit of just $766,667, and with Lehner's $5-million contract placed on long-term injured reserve, it leaves the Golden Knights with roughly $7 million in usable cap space.

$1.5 million of that has already been used to sign veteran sniper and two-time Stanley Cup Champion Phil Kessel to a one-year deal.

External options

Very few options remain in free agency for the Golden Knights. Former Stanley Cup winner Braden Holtby tops the list of goalies available, but he too has suffered a serious injury.

Veteran Cory Schneider is another option, but at 36 his best days are behind him and he only played one game in the NHL last season with the New York Islanders.

A trade may be a possibility with leading candidates being Semyon Varlamov of the Islanders and James Reimers of the San Jose Sharks.

Ilya Sorokin has established himself as the number one in New York, meaning they are likely to be willing to move Varlamov's $5-million cap hit while the Sharks have the luxury of having three NHL calibre goalies on their roster with Reminer, Kaapo Kahkonen and Adin Hill.

The most senior of the three, Reminer will likely be the most available and with solid numbers last season (.911 save percentage in 48 games) and a low cap hit of $2.25-million, he will certainly be talked about as an option in Vegas.

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Pipe dream

The best available goalie in the NHL is 23-year-old Jake Oettinger who has impressed during his two years with the Dallas Stars, not least by posting a remarkable .954 save percentage in the playoffs last season.

Oettinger is a restricted free agent and so the Golden Knights could tender an offer sheet but it would cost them well above the $4.2-million threshold and their first and third-round picks in the upcoming draft.

While Vegas aren't scared to push the boat out and make big deals, the outlay is a significant one and, in any case, the Stars would likely match any offer anyway meaning the hot prospect would remain in Dallas.

Lehner has three years remaining on his contract, so any fix is likely going to be a short-term one in the hope that the Swede can return to form and fitness for 2022/23.

Contender status

For a team who desperately want to right the wrong of their huge underperformance last season and regain their Stanley Cup contender status, the huge question mark in net is far from ideal.

The most likely outcome is that their success or failure will rely on the young shoulders of Thompson and while a clear risk, every goalie has to start somewhere and could be the making of the former Brandon Wheat King.

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