Since the NHL introduced the Conn Smythe Trophy in 1965, it has been awarded to a goalie 16 times while the Hart Trophy has gone to a goalie on only four occasions. Goaltending is obviously deemed to be more crucial in the playoffs than in the regular season. The objective of every NHL team is to win the Stanley Cup. In the playoffs, a goalie is often looked upon as the key player in putting his team “over the top.” In rating goalies, the ability to raise one’s game in the playoffs becomes a crucial consideration.
The NHL has become a young man’s league. When they reach their mid-30s, goalies are looked at in the same way as skaters. How long can they continue to perform at their present level? Does a short-term dip indicate a permanent slippage? Two netminders who fit into this category are Nashville’s Pekka Rinne and Vegas’ Marc-Andre Fleury. Both have long-term credentials as Grade-A goalies. But Father Time is catching up with them. And because of the crucial importance of goalkeeping, they will not be cut any slack for imperfections. The key question is, what are the future values of Rinne and Fleury? How do they compare with each other?
One month into the 2019-20 season, Fleury will be 35 and Rinne 37. Fleury was the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2003. He jumped directly from junior to Pittsburgh for part of the next season and remained a Penguin until being taken by Vegas in the 2017 expansion draft. Rinne was drafted 258th in 2004. He stayed in Finland for one more season and then played three years in the AHL. He played his first full NHL season in 2008-09 and has been with Nashville since. Despite being two years younger than Rinne, Fleury’s NHL career developed much quicker. He probably played his best between 2007 and 2009, when the Penguins made two trips to the final, winning the Cup in ’09. His final eight seasons in Pittsburgh were marked by inconsistency. Fleury did lead the expansion Knights to the Cup final in 2018. However, I think his role was overstated. People did not want to believe an expansion team could outplay its opponents in three consecutive rounds. The Knights did. They did not require outstanding goaltending. In the final, Fleury was outplayed by Washington’s Braden Holtby. In the 2019 playoffs, his inconsistency was noticeable. Rinne has started more than 70 percent of Nashville’s games since 2009-10. He had his best regular season in 2010-11, he won the Vezina Trophy in 2017-18 and has consistently had good stats. Then come the playoffs. His post-season play has been below his regular-season level. Nashville did advance to the Cup final in 2017. Rinne was good in the first three rounds, but he was still beaten for some bad goals. In the Cup final, he was outplayed by Pittsburgh’s Matt Murray. During the past two post-seasons, he was outplayed by Connor Hellebuyck and Ben Bishop. As a result, Nashville has never won more than one series in any playoff year other than 2017.
Both Fleury and Rinne are No. 1 goalies on teams that are Stanley Cup contenders, but I doubt either one of them can carry his team to a Cup championship. Fleury has shown in recent seasons he can be a No. 2 goalie on a Cup champion who can chip in with a few key wins and be a supportive teammate. The Predators went to the final in 2017. The Golden Knights went to the final in 2018. In neither case did I believe that the goaltending of Rinne or Fleury was a key factor in winning a series. They were both OK when called upon, but their respective teams outplayed the opposition decisively. Both goalies have also delivered some playoff clunkers during this time.
Their styles are vastly different. Rinne is huge. He plays what I call a quiet game. He is fundamentally sound, and he anticipates well. He is usually square to the puck, leaving an opponent very little net to shoot at. His rebound control is good. He does not make much use of his stick, and his puckhandling is unremarkable. Fleury has good size, but he isn’t huge. He plays a loud game based on quickness and athleticism. He is often in a low crouch and relies on quick leg movements and a quick glove hand. All of Fleury’s reactions are aggressive. At times, he puts himself out of position with pokechecks and double leg stacks. As a result, his rebound control is inconsistent. He is an aggressive and pretty effective puckhandler.
Rinne’s strengths are formidable. He’s big and sound fundamentally. His anticipation is good, and he’s square to the puck. With his positioning and size, he usually doesn’t have to make quick movements to stop pucks. His rebound control also avoids the necessity of quick reactions to second shots. Fleury’s strengths are in different areas. His movements are quick and athletic. I’ll never forget his pre-game warmup routine when he was a member of Canada’s world-junior team. He would get into a low crouch and then do a series of rapid-fire split moves with his legs. The only other goalie I ever saw do a similar routine was Soviet great Vladislav Tretiak. Fleury’s glove hand is excellent. He can pokecheck well, and his aggressive puckhandling helps out his D-men.
Fleury’s game is based on reactions and quick movements. Both of these traits deteriorate with age. Fleury is not the goalie he was 10 years ago. He will not get better. The only question is how quickly any further deterioration will take place. Another issue is Fleury’s seeming inability to call a “personal timeout” to stop meltdown situations at key times. Rinne has different concerns. He has not shown the ability to raise his game in big playoff situations. Can he lead his team to a Cup? I don’t see it. There are goalies who have had more playoff success than Rinne who are not as strong fundamentally as he is. Those other goalies seem to have an inner fire burning in big games. Rinne seems to lack this ability. I doubt he’ll develop that at this stage in his career.
Hockey is the consummate team game. The most valuable players are those who can perform at a top level while, at the same time, raise the level of play of their teammates. I have never heard a bad word about Rinne. He appears to be a consistent performer, and I’m sure he is a good teammate. Fleury has an unusually high reputation in the game. His outgoing, infectious personality has endeared him to teammates in Vegas, Pittsburgh and in junior hockey. His upbeat nature was a key factor in the decision by Vegas to bring him in as one of the pillars in building an expansion franchise. I even look to the people from Humboldt singling him out for his hospitality when they visited Vegas during the 2018 playoffs. Fleury has something special. He has the X-factor.
Rinne recently said he has two years left to win in Nashville. However, I think he’ll be replaced before then by Juuse Saros. At 37, you can’t expect any significant improvement. Regular-season success leading to playoff disappointment is not good for your job security when there’s a viable option available. At 35, I don’t expect any improvement from Fleury, either. With his aggressive style, further injuries are probable. However, his overall athleticism is likely to extend his career beyond that of most goalies. He has shown he can be a useful backup on a Cup champion, and he has a positive, outgoing personality and winning resume. In a choice of “old” goalies, I’ll take Fleury over Rinne.