Perhaps it’s so easy for pretty much everyone to root for Marc-Andre Fleury because he’s so quintessentially himself, year to year, regardless of his on-ice results. Whether we was winning Stanley Cups in Pittsburgh as the starter or being pushed to a backup role, he was gracious, self deprecating, playful in practice, always approaching the game with a smile. Whether he was leading the Vegas Golden Knights to a Stanley Cup final appearance in 2018 or fielding questions about losing the crease to Robin Lehner in 2020, Fleury stayed classy and gracious.
And now, in 2020-21, off to the best start of his career, Fleury remains…Fleury. It doesn’t matter if people are trying to anoint him the Vezina Trophy winner already or singling out that he’s getting great results playing deeper in his net. He’ll still steer the conversation to something lighthearted, as he did Monday night when asked about a highlight-reel save on Nazem Kadri after shutting out the offensively potent Colorado Avalanche for a second time in four starts.
“I always love a two-pad stack once in a while,” Fleury said with a laugh. “They’re just fun. Especially when you stop them, you know?”
Shortly thereafter, Golden Knights right winger Alex Tuch, sitting beside Fleury during the post-game Zoom call, couldn’t hide his admiration.
“It looked really good.”
That’s the affable Fleury we’ve known throughout his 17-year career. He carries himself like some lovable backup goalie who is great in the room and plays 10 times a year. Except that’s not what Fleury is. He’s one of the best netminders of his generation and, if he can continue his incredible hot streak long enough, he could add his first Vezina Trophy to an already-impressive resume.
The surface stats this season are otherworldly: among qualified starters, he leads the NHL in goals-against average (1.55), save percentage (.942) and shutouts (three). The Vezina voters, a.k.a. the NHL’s active GMs, have more of a traditional-stat bent than an analytics bent to their voting patterns, so Fleury is a clear frontrunner for the award right now, regardless of the incredible work Kevin Lankinen and Andrei Vasilevskiy have done in Chicago and Tampa, respectively.
Analytically, is Fleury legit when placed among the 22 workhorse netminders who have logged 500 or more minutes at 5-on-5 in this young season?
On one hand, with such a strong team in front of him, Fleury doesn’t have to weather a barrage of pucks every game. In that sample of 22 goalies, he sees the ninth-fewest shots per 60, the sixth-fewest high-danger shots per 60, and the seventh-farthest average shot distance. He has the eighth-lowest expected goals against per 60. So while his workload isn’t an absolute picnic, it grades out as below average on a degree of difficulty scale. That said, when teams get quality chances, Fleury thwarts them. He leads the NHL in 5-on-5 high-danger SP, and he’s eighth in medium-danger SP. Heck, he also ranks top-10 in low-danger SP. So Fleury is basically stopping everything. That’s why he ranks second only to Vasilevskiy in goals saved above average per 60. It’s impressive because there’s a trend toward goalies performing better with more work, not less. Connor Hellebuyck, Jacob Markstrom and Corey Crawford, for instance, had phenomenal 2019-20 campaigns despite being among the league’s busiest goalies, while the likes of Carey Price, Devan Dubnyk and Matt Murray struggled badly with strong defensive play in front of them. Fleury is staying sharp game in, game out despite stretches in which he theoretically could get cold.
So what happens if Fleury adds a Vezina to his list of accolades? He was already inching toward Hall of Fame status, but a Vezina would lock ‘Flower’ in as a first-balloter. He has the Stanley Cup rings already. From a legacy standpoint, we could award him 1.5 rings, as he led the Pens to the 2009 Cup, was a backup during the 2016 run and played half the post-season in 2017 before ceding the crease back to Matt Murray. Fleury obviously checks the box from a wins standpoint, sitting fifth all-time at 474. He has a good chance to catch Ed Belfour for fourth at 484 this season and, if Fleury plays enough, maybe even Roberto Luongo for third at 489. It’s generally accepted that Fleury will pass Patrick Roy’s 551 and sit second only to Martin Brodeur’s 691 by retirement. As is the case with pitchers in baseball, wins are an overrated stat – but no so much when you win enough to rank among the all-time leaders. At that point, you have to be incredibly good for a very long time just to be given the opportunity to win that many games.
When we published The Hockey News’ Top 100 Goalies’ of All-time in 2018, we slotted Fleury 40th. Among goalies ranked above him at the time, 35 were retired, and 31 of the retirees (88.6 percent) were Hall of Famers. Since that edition came out, Fleury has added 70 more wins, 16 more shutouts and a fourth-place Vezina finish.
Still, detractors might point out that Fleury has never been the king of the castle at his position even for a year. He has never been named a first- or second-team all-star, his play has nosedived temporarily at several junctures throughout his career, he’s never been a Vezina finalist, and he doesn’t have a Conn Smythe Trophy. Anyone in that camp might claim that, if a two-time Cup winner who also has a Vezina Trophy such as Tom Barrasso isn’t in the Hall yet, Fleury isn’t a lock. But a Vezina would eliminate any doubts about Flower’s Hall call, especially when his rap sheet also includes nearly unrivalled longevity.
Given how well Fleury is playing, it feels astounding now that he was the subject of trade rumors just a few months ago and that, according to a report this week, the Penguins tried to reacquire him. But there’s no chance that happens now. Not with Lehner still on the mend, and not with owner Bill Foley committed to keeping Fleury around. For now, he’ll hold down the Vegas crease and keep working on that Vezina quest.