It was never going to be easy for Marc-Andre Fleury, who could become the 13th goalie in NHL history to reach 400 wins if the Vegas Golden Knights beat the Philadelphia Flyers on Monday.
The perpetually grinning goalie came into the NHL as the first overall pick in 2003, a draft that turned out to be historically loaded. That’s a tough burden for any netminder, especially when you recall that – believe it or not – the Pittsburgh Penguins were in a positively dreadful place at that time.
“MAF” has seen some serious turbulence on his way to collecting three Stanley Cup rings. He became one of Hockey Twitter’s favorite goalies to ridicule, and at times criticisms were certainly warranted; following his first championship with Pittsburgh, Fleury’s save percentage was below .900 in four straight postseasons. Plenty of goalies wouldn’t be able to rebuild their confidence after such struggles, and there were valleys including some tough times that warranted a well-publicized locker room visit from Mario Lemieux.
Fleury’s eventual exit from Pittsburgh was remarkably classy, but it was more than that. The athletic goalie also happened to go out on a high note.
For all the memories of postseason struggles, Fleury was fantastic during the first half of the Penguins’ 2017 Stanley Cup run, posting a splendid .924 save percentage. How many goalies would be this relaxed during a Game 7 of a playoff series, to the point of teasing Alex Ovechkin after a save that … well, few goalies could author?
Fleury then gave way to Matt Murray without making a stink, passed him the Stanley Cup, and then gracefully accepted going to an expansion team. By gestures alone, he deserves serious kudos:
With Fleury, it’s easy to get distracted by the bigger moments. During the time of that Game 7 save against Nicklas Lidstrom, fancy stats people gradually found themselves rolling their eyes at praise of Fleury. Now, his improved work might be slipping under the radar.
Consider this: in 196 regular-season games from 2014-15 through this season, Fleury sports a strong .920 save percentage, matching Braden Holtby. His 111 wins edges the likes of Carey Price. Fleury ranks in the top 10 of both categories during that time frame for netminders with at least 50 games played.
Remarkably, the 33-year-old is in the middle of one of his best regular seasons. Injuries limit his Vezina appeal, but Fleury is 24-9-3 with a .930 save percentage, which would easily rank as his best individual season.
Gerard Gallant deserves a lot of credit for how the Golden Knights play, and the line of Jonathan Marchessault, Reilly Smith, and William Karlsson probably deserve more ink for being one of the more dangerous NHL trios (at least when healthy). It’s easy to lose track of how special a season Fleury is having thanks to injuries and other headlines, but he probably deserves credit as the glue holding a shockingly competitive expansion team together.
Take a look at where Fleury ranks among the 13 winningest NHL goalies (along with a notable name at number 14), and realize that he could really climb this list as his career goes along:
1. Martin Brodeur: 691 wins
2. Patrick Roy: 551
3. Ed Belfour: 484
4. Roberto Luongo: 467
5. Curtis Joseph: 454
6. Terry Sawchuk: 447
7. Jacques Plante: 437
8. Henrik Lundqvist: 430
9. Tony Esposito: 423
10. Glen Hall: 407
11. Grant Fuhr: 403
12. Chris Osgood: 401
13. Fleury: 399
14. Dominik Hasek: 389
Fleury told NHL.com’s Mike Zeisberger that he’s taken a look at those all-time lists, but he doesn’t necessarily obsess about it.
“Those two guys (Roy and Brodeur) are from the province of Quebec like me and they were guys I grew up looking up to,” Fleury said. “There are other guys on that list too from the 1990s that I used to watch like Ed Belfour (484) and Curtis Joseph (454).
“Now I see their names on the list and to think I’m up there, it’s flattering and kind of unbelievable.”
Fleury may never win a Vezina during his NHL career. He may not win over all his critics, even if he continues his current upward trend.
None of that changes that he’s enjoyed a memorable career, and whether he reaches 400 wins tonight or later on, Fleury’s shown why he was one of the few goalies to go first overall. Simply put, there’s no other goalie quite like “The Flower.”