On Thursday, the Vegas Golden Knights received news that star goaltender Robin Lehner will miss the entire upcoming NHL season due to a hip injury.
NEWS: Robin Lehner is expected to miss the entire 2022-23 NHL season after it was determined that he will require hip surgery. An exact timeline of his recovery is to be determined. #VegasBorn— Vegas Golden Knights (@GoldenKnights) August 11, 2022
Just a scant few years ago, the Golden Knights were flush between the pipes, with the incumbent veteran Marc-Andre Fleury on his way to a Vezina Trophy and a backup in Lehner that was strong enough to start for most NHL franchises. Fast forward to today, and the Golden Knights are a highly-leveraged, aging roster that missed the 2021-22 Stanley Cup Playoffs due to an assortment of injuries to their top players, including (but not limited to) Lehner, Mark Stone, Jack Eichel, and Reilly Smith. Per NHLInjuryViz, only the Montreal Canadiens were more impacted by injuries in 2021-22.
The Lehner news is more of the same for Vegas, who now has some difficult decisions to make. The Athletic's Jesse Granger summed it up nicely when discussing their internal options:
So where do the Golden Knights go from here? Laurent Brossoit, who served as Lehner’s backup for the majority of last season, also underwent offseason surgery. His timeline for return is unclear, but there’s a chance he isn’t ready for the start of the season. That leaves Vegas with Logan Thompson — who impressed many with a 10-5-3 record down the stretch of last season – and free-agent signing Michael Hutchinson.
All due respect to Brossoit, Thompson, and Hutchinson, but none are seen as a '1A' option for a contending team. Granger, the Golden Knights beat reporter, goes on to discuss external options, including free agent options like Braden Holtby, an offer sheet to someone like Jake Oettinger, or a trade. He ultimately concludes that riding Thompson is the most likely option, and I have no reason to disagree. But the Golden Knight management is surely scouring the NHL landscape for a team with a surplus of goalies or an ability to move on from a current well-regarded player.
The Blue Jackets actually could make sense as a trading partner. Joonas Korpisalo is probably not held in higher esteem than Thompson, for example, but the Blue Jackets would certainly listen on any offer for him. Danill Tarasov is considered a top prospect for the future, and he probably wouldn't make sense for either party. Is he ready to win now? Probably not. Are the Golden Knights willing to trade huge pieces for a win-later goalie? Also probably not.
That leaves Elvis Merzlikins, who has four years remaining on his $5.4M AAV contract. On the one hand, that's a lot of money for a cash-strapped team. Plus, Lehner's injury is presumably only going to impact this season, not the three following seasons, and that could be trouble. Finally, the Golden Knights are so tight to the salary cap that trading for another $5M+ goalie would probably be a poor decision in the long run.
On the other hand, the Golden Knights are an impatient franchise hellbent on winning now. Merzlikins is an upgrade on any of their current goalies, and his current salary basically replaces Lehner's once he goes on LTIR. The Blue Jackets are still in accumulation mode, and while they probably aren't soliciting Merzlikins, would be wise to at least listen to any incoming offer that gives them young pieces to compete now and into the future.
Ultimately, there are too many reasons to think this theoretical trade partnership will not actually occur. Vegas has parted ways with many of its young and best prospects. They don't need another goalie controversy after this season. There are salary cap implications, and there is basically no organization more up against the salary cap ceiling than Vegas. Columbus, meanwhile, wants to take a step forward this year. Trading Merzlikins would make that goal more difficult.
An interesting thought exercise, nonetheless, but likely nothing more.