Now that Marc-Andre Fleury is going to play for the Chicago Blackhawks during the 2021-22 season we should probably look at what this means for him, the team, and the league.
On the surface, this is a significant addition for a Chicago team that has overhauled its roster and found — if even for one year — a real solution to a position that has been a weakness the past couple of years. Fleury’s resume speaks for itself, he is probably going to be in the Hall of Fame when his career ends, and he is coming off of a 2020-21 performance that saw him win his first Vezina Trophy.
There should be a lot to like there.
But there should also be some realistic expectations.
What you saw last is not necessarily what you will see next
The trap that we (teams, fans, media, etc.) always fall into. You were great last season, so you must be great this season. Or, vice versa, you stunk last year so you are probably going to stink again. It does not always work that way.
There is no denying that Fleury’s 2020-21 performance was outstanding. He was one of the top goalies in the league by nearly every objective measure, won his first Vezina Trophy, and played a significant role in Vegas reaching the Semifinals for the third time in four years.
He was great. Spectacular. At times phenomenal. Maybe one of the best individual seasons of his entire career, which is no small accomplishment. Because for all of the critics he has had throughout his career, he has been an excellent (and very durable) goalie for a very long time.
And when the puck drops on the 2021-22 season none of it will matter.
For as good as Fleury was this past season, it was still a significant jump from the level he produced at in the previous two seasons (and three of the previous four). And for as good as he was it was the fourth time in six years his team’s postseason ended with him sitting on the bench behind another goalie. You can not hide from that.
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Does that mean he can not duplicate his most recent performance this season? Not all. He absolutely can. But anybody that tells you with 100 percent certainty what any goalie is going to do in their next season, good or bad, is probably selling you some really fancy snake oil. They don’t know. You don’t know. I don’t know.
But we can still try to guess. We can try to create a realistic expectation.
For as good as Fleury was this past season, he struggled so much the previous year that Vegas brought in another goalie at the trade deadline (Robin Lehner), gave that goalie the starting job in the playoffs, signed that goalie to a long-term contract extension, and probably would have moved on from Fleury a year ago if they could have. They didn’t expect him to play the way he did this year.
He could be great this season. Or he could be the 2018-19 and 2019-20 player that was merely pretty good. There is a big difference between those two performances.
Father time is undefeated
Something we can not ignore here is the fact Fleury is going to be 37 this season and has played a LOT of hockey in his career. That is toward the end of the line for a goalie.
During the salary cap era we have seen 59 individual seasons for a goalie 37 or older, and the performances have not always been great.
Out of those 59 samples, only 15 of them save the goalie finish the season with a positive Goals Save Above Average (save percentage vs. league average save percentage on same number of shots).
Out of those 15 goalies with a positive mark, only six of them played more than 40 games in that season.
The first table here shows the top-10 GSAA marks for goalies age 37-and-up. Half of them were part time goalies or backups.
Now, let’s look at it another. Let’s look at the age 37-and-up goalies that played the most games (35 games or more) and see how their performance stacked up. Notice all of the red (negative numbers) on the far right column. These are goalies that were, for the most part, counted on to be “the guy” for their teams. Not platoon players. Not backups. The starter.
All of those goalies had great careers, and some of them were still productive right up until that point. It is tough to keep playing that level, at that sort of physically demanding position, for that long, without eventually just reaching the cliff.
Fleury might be the main goalie. But Kevin Lankinen is probably going to still need to play a significant role to keep Fleury’s minutes in check. It will help.
Either way, Fleury will make or break Chicago’s chances
It really is this simple.
If Fleury plays like he did in 2020-21, then Chicago is going to have a chance to be very good for the first time in five years.
But if he goes back to his 2019-20 performance, or struggles like some of the aforementioned goalies did at the same age, it might be more of the same for Chicago.
[Related: Fleury tells Blackhawks he will play 2021-22 season]
For all of the moves they made this offseason this is still a very questionable roster. It is not a particularly deep group of forwards. Seth Jones is a big name that Chicago committed for a long time, but how good he still is remains to be seen. The rest of the defense after him is very suspect. The best forward and biggest minute eater on the team is allergic to playing defense. And there is still no evidence to suggest that Jeremy Colliton can devise a contending defensive system.
If you are a Chicago fan there is reason to see Marc-Andre Fleury in your crease and be excited, because there is a chance he could transform the team into something worth watching.
But he still might be a bigger wild card than anybody wants to admit.
Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.