NBCSN’s coverage of the 2020-21 NHL season continues with Sunday’s matchup between the Los Angeles Kings and Vegas Golden Knights. Golden Knights-Kings stream coverage begins at 5:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.
If you’re not someone who clings to certain notions like “Carey Price is the best goalie in the world, no matter what,” then you’re constantly tweaking your list of the NHL’s elite. And, if you’ve had any experience trying to detect some sort of pattern from it all, you might agree that “goalies are voodoo.”
Yet, people who believe that “goalies are voodoo” have to be a little surprised by the flat-out brilliance of Marc-Andre Fleury this season.
Marc-Andre Fleury: playing some of the best hockey of his career
Heading into Sunday’s Golden Knights – Kings game, Marc-Andre Fleury sports a 16-5-0 record with a tremendous .933 save percentage. It will be hard for MAF to sustain that save percentage — better than his career peak of .927 from that magical first Golden Knights season — but that shouldn’t take away from how incredible he’s been in 2020-21.
Fleury’s numbers look tremendous whether you go simpler, or dig deeper. Via Evolving Hockey, Fleury’s three wins-above-replacement rank third in the league this season, trailing only Vasilevskiy (4.1) and Thatcher Demko (4). The difference between third (MAF, 3) and fourth Cal Petersen (2.5) is notable too.
In Hockey Reference’s version of Goals Saved Against Average, Marc-Andre Fleury is second at 14.97, with Demko a distant third (10.83), and Vasilevskiy in first (15.83).
It’s all pretty staggering stuff. And it’s difficult to explain why, at least if you’re searching for something more substantial than “goalies are voodoo.”
As The Athletic’s Jesse Granger found out (sub. require), Fleury’s sword-and-meme-wielding agent Allan Walsh believes it’s all about “The Flower” not wilting when he gets those coveted starts. Here’s an abbreviated version of what Walsh told Granger.
“If you look at Marc’s career, he’s always excelled and played amongst the elite goalies in the league, when he’s been the No. 1 goalie and played the vast majority of games,” Walsh told Granger earlier in March. “ … It wasn’t the label that was important. It was the fact that he was expected to come in and play the vast majority of the games, and that’s what he thrives on.”
Walsh doesn’t view Fleury’s revitalization as a matter of changing technique.
Walsh said that, “for anyone to say that after 18 years of being an elite goalie in the NHL, that somehow there are adjustments made this year that have fixed him, are laugh-out-loud ridiculous.”
Naturally, saying “my goalie wants to play more, is playing well while playing often, so that’s why he’s playing well” feels a touch self-serving. It might not be the real explanation for The Flower’s renaissance.
Either way, it’s fascinating.
Fuel to fire “The Flower”
Could it be that Fleury flourishes under pressure?
Marc-Andre Fleury’s Hockey Reference page provides an interesting timeline of the ups and downs of the 36-year-old’s memorable NHL career. In particular, it’s fascinating to see how (or if) Fleury rebounded from especially tough seasons.
With help from Hockey Reference’s listings, there are two spans that stand out.
First, Fleury sandwiched two strong seasons between one rough one with Pittsburgh.
And then, consider the end of his run with the Penguins, through his Golden Knights days.
Maybe Marc-Andre Fleury puts together some of the best goaltending of his career when he has something to prove — and sometimes a job to win?
Joining an expansion team had to be a shock to the system. Proving that he can win in such an uncertain situation also had to provide stick-it-to-them motivation.
Eventually, Fleury’s numbers died down from mixed in 2018-19, to becoming a liability last season. As much as Walsh spoke about the job being “taken” from Fleury (this time without a sword and a Photoshop job), Fleury played himself out of the gig. On a team going bold to win it all like Vegas suddenly has done, they didn’t have time to wait for Fleury to get on track.
And then this season happened.
With Robin Lehner injured, Fleury saw a golden opportunity. Whether his future may somehow remain with the Golden Knights, or he’s auditioning for a new team, there’s a lot on the line for MAF in 2020-21.
To Fleury’s credit, he hasn’t just kept the seat warm for Robin Lehner. He’s taking the ball and running with it, and it’s almost as a delightful to see as MAF’s beaming, signature smile.