By Shelly Anderson With his flexible body, omnipresent smile and an infectious joie de vivre, Marc-Andre Fleury seems eternally young. Truth is, he turned 31 Nov. 28, and he’s had to make some adjustments. “I used to not stretch at all, and I could do the splits no problem,” he said. “Now I’ve got to work at it a little harder.” Nowadays, his ritual before he takes the ice includes a stretching routine. He’s made some other tweaks in his preparation and his performance, many of them an outgrowth of his work with third-year goaltending coach Mike Bales. Indications are that Fleury, though getting older, is still getting better. That raises some questions about what his legacy will be and where his place in history might be when he hangs up his skates, which seemingly won’t be for years to come.
A crunch of the numbers says Fleury could finish elbow pad to elbow pad with the very best, at least in the category of wins. For his career, Fleury is currently ranked 20th all-time with 336 wins.
Ed Belfour, in third place with 484 wins, is within reach by the time Fleury turns 35. Then come the heavyweights. Patrick Roy is No. 2 with 551 wins, Martin Brodeur No. 1 with 691.
“They were both my idols,” Fleury said. “They both had great careers, a lot of wins, Stanley Cups. I remember how much they won. That’s something you define people with – how much they won – right?” Perhaps Fleury can stamp his name alongside them, in some yet-to-be-determined order. “That would be very impressive if he gets up into that territory,” Bales said. It would be Hall of Fame territory to be sure. In his seven full seasons – Fleury has missed time to a high ankle sprain, league work stoppages and a stretch in the AHL – he has averaged 37.6 wins. At the mid-way point of this season, he is on pace to win only 29 games. If the Penguins improve and Fleury wins 38 games this season, it would put him at 360 for his career. If he then could average 37 over nine more seasons, taking him to age 40, he would be at 693, two ahead of Brodeur’s all-time mark. Using 360 as a starting point following this season, if Fleury averages 30 wins for nine more campaigns, he would be at 620. If he averages 30 for seven more seasons, he would be at 560 wins, nine more than Roy. Even if Fleury averages 30 for just five more seasons, he would still reach 500. Barring injury, Fleury could pretty easily catch Roy, at least. “I don’t know about easily,” Fleury interjected. Two of his high-profile teammates, center Sidney Crosby and defenseman Kris Letang, both 28, said they would be thrilled to have Fleury as their starting goalie for the entirety of their careers. They envision him playing to 40 if not beyond, should he choose to. “Oh, yeah, he can,” Letang said. “I don’t know why not.” Crosby was helping out at a world juniors camp as a teenager when he first met Fleury, who at 16 was one of Team Canada’s goalies in waiting. “I remember him being pretty nice to me then, and I was just a kid working a camp,” Crosby said. “We ended up playing world juniors together three years later. It was funny the way things worked out. “He’s in really good shape. He takes care of himself. He works hard at it. I don’t think people realize how hard it is year after year to be a starting goalie and to deal with the pressure that comes with that, the length of the season and amount of games he plays. It’s amazing what he’s been able to do.” Fleury insisted he hasn’t thought about how long he wants to play. He only hopes he will be able to leave on his terms. “I still love the game and, hopefully, I can play until I decide I want to stop, whenever that is,” he said. Roy played until he was 37. Brodeur until he was 42. The only active goalies ahead of Fleury in career victories are Florida’s Roberto Luongo, who is five years Fleury’s senior, and the Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist, who is two years older. Vancouver’s Ryan Miller is right there with Fleury in the wins column, but Miller, too, is older, by four years. As with many goaltenders, Fleury’s trajectory still seems to be headed up as he gets into his 30s, while conventional wisdom holds that skaters peak at some point in their mid 20s. “Marc’s at that age where everything is starting to come together,” Bales said. “He has that experience, knows the patterns. It’s so instinctual. Add that to the technical and tactical parts of his game and his physical skills.” Pittsburgh made Fleury the first overall pick in 2003. In his early years, he was known for his cat-like moves – acrobatic, flexibility-testing saves. While he maintains that ability, he doesn’t have to rely on it as much. “When he came into the league, he was making it really hard on himself,” Letang said. “Now he’s more calm in the net, and every year he improves.” Long-time observers have seen Fleury get better in the areas of positioning, reading the play, play on the posts, footwork and rebound control. “I’m not getting younger,” Fleury said, “but you get experience.” One record he won’t even come close to is Brodeur’s record 125 shutouts. Fleury would have to nearly double the 40 he had just to crack the top 10. He also has been the focus of criticism for his post-season performance in recent years, with some blame heaped on him for the fact the Penguins’ core of stars has won just one Stanley Cup (2009), which Fleury was instrumental in, most notably with his lunging save on Detroit’s Nicklas Lidstrom in the final seconds of Game 7. If Fleury is blessed with longevity, he will take a run at that all-time wins mark. “I can’t say I’m surprised,” Crosby said.
This is an edited version of a feature that appeared in the December 7 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.