Vegas Golden Knights goalie Marc-Andre Fleury was named the NHL’s No. 1 star of the week on Monday after recording back-to-back shutouts in his past two starts, bringing his season total to a league-leading eight shutouts. It is an impressive number when you consider nobody else in the league has more than six, and only one player (Tampa Bay’s Andrei Vasilevskiy) has more than five.
When combined with his league-leading win total, as well as the fact he plays for a prominent team in the Western Conference playoff race, one that was just in the Stanley Cup Final a year ago, there is almost certainly going to be some kind of a Vezina Trophy push for him.
But the NHL’s general managers, who are tasked with voting for the Vezina, have not typically given Fleury much attention throughout his career. What stands out about his 2018-19 season so far is that it is in a lot of ways a perfect representation of his career as a whole.
It has featured some incredible highs, and also some incredible lows.
The simplest way to put it is like this — your opinion of Fleury as a Vezina candidate says a lot about what you look for in a goalie; or perhaps more accurately, the way you evaluate a goaltender’s performance in the NHL.
Fleury has always been a goalie that tends to appeal to a large group of fans and analysts because his game has flash to it. You don’t need to understand the finer points or the technical details of the position to appreciate watching him play. He will make the saves and make the plays that show up on highlight reels because he is a freakish athlete, has incredible quickness, and is never truly “out” of any play. He can make any save on any shot.
When everything clicks together at the same time he is capable of looking unbeatable.
When it does not all work together, it can look ugly. Very ugly.
With Fleury’s 2018-19 performance you see a lot of wins, and that will no doubt appeal to the “wins are the only thing that matters” subset of the hockey community.
But folks, it is 2019. We should be well beyond using wins to evaluate goaltending play because a lot of it (not all of it, but a lot of it) is team dependent.
That win total for Fleury is mostly the result of playing for a pretty good team that gives him some decent goal support, and also appearing in more games than any other goalie in the league.
Even if you go with the mindset that “winning is the only stat the matters,” his winning percentage of .571 is tied for fifth among goalies who have appeared in at least 40 games. If you dig down to goalies that have appeared in at least 30 games, it drops down to a tie for eighth.
Again: The current win total is about volume, not necessarily about consistent, dominant play.
But then you see the eight shutouts and probably of think that as an example of the dominance. And to a point, it is. Eight shutouts in a season is a lot. It is even more impressive when it happens in only 56 games, and it shows just how good he is capable of being when he is at his best.
What should stand out about that number, however, is the fact that he has eight shutouts and still only has a .911 save percentage for the season, a mark that is just barely above the league average. It is, quite literally, the middle of the pack among NHL goalies. It almost seems impossible to believe that a goalie with eight shutouts in a season can only have a league average season percentage. You would think they would be dominant.
Of the eight goalies who have recorded at least four shutouts this season, five of them have a save percentage of at least .924. The only three that do not are Fleury, Sergei Bobrovsky, and Mikko Koskinen. Going back even further, in the history of the league there have only been eight instances where a goalie had at least eight shutouts in a season and still finished with a save percentage of .911 or worse, and a few of those came during eras where goal-scoring was significantly higher and save percentages were routinely lower than they are today.
What this should tell us is that while Fleury has been prone to the occasional dominant performance this season, he has also had several games where it just has not been there for him and he his play has totally collapsed on itself. Look no further than the fact he has already had 20 games this season where he has faced at least 15 shots and recorded a save percentage of .890 or worse.
That is tied (with Bobrovsky) for the most in the league. Now, that total (like the win total) is also largely due to the number of games he has actually played. More games means more opportunity to mess up. But that is still close to 36 percent of his starts where he has pretty much given his team no chance to win. The league average for that number is around 29 percent, and if you look at that goalies that have a higher percentage it is a list of goalies that are having pretty awful years.
(Keep in mind, when goalies face at least 15 shots and have a save percentage of .890 or less this season their teams have only won 15 percent of those games.)
All of this means that on any given night Vegas is either getting one of the best goalies in league, or one of the worst. There is very rarely any sort of middle ground with him.
This is what makes Vegas a total mystery when it comes to the playoffs, because their success will depend almost entirely on which version of Marc-Andre Fleury they get over any best-of-seven series. If it is the one that has the eight shutouts, they could beat any team. If it is the one that has self destructed and in more than 35 percent of his starts they will be done in round one.
Based on the way this season — and almost his entire career to this point — has gone it is going to be anybody’s guess as to which version shows up.
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