In the Crease: Golden Knights Success Depends Heavily on Fleury’s Health
One of the most beloved players in the NHL today, Marc-Andre Fleury will be playing for the Vegas Golden Knights for the foreseeable future. It still feels weird to a degree, though. After all, the guy backstopped the Pittsburgh Penguins for well over a decade. He won three Stanley Cups with the Pens organization, albeit in a secondary role for two of those championships.
Marc-Andre Fleury – Face of the Golden Knights
Despite all that, Fleury already cemented himself in Vegas’ hockey history. The biggest surprise of 2017-18, Fleury helped shape the Knights in their inaugural season. He provided fantastic goaltending all year long and pushed the team into the Stanley Cup Finals.
Although they fell short of the grand prize, Fleury re-affirmed his ability and earned a major contract extension. However, he’s now 33 years old. He carries a worrisome injury history. And, many worry his ability will decline as he gets older.
But, how worried do the Knights really need to be?
First Year in Vegas – Marc-Andre Fleury Shines
As mentioned above, Marc-Andre Fleury has been in the league for a while now. A former first overall draft pick in the 2003 entry draft, he enters his 15th NHL season this year.
Despite his age, 2017-18 was one of Fleury’s best statistical seasons to-date. He posted a 29-13-4 record, good for a .630 win percentage: the highest win percentage of his career with at least 41 games played. Again, at 32 years old. Oh, plus he completed the year with a .927 save percentage and 2.24 GAA.
Like a Fine Wine…
And it’s not like he beat up on easy teams all year. In fact, he faced the highest quality starts percentage (0.674) of his whole career. (For the record, his previous high was .667 in 2007-08, ten seasons earlier.) Marc-Andre Fleury must have been saving his best for last, as he’s looking more like a fine wine than a 33-year-old athlete. Professional hockey players don’t often improve their career bests as he has in their mid-30’s. He should be winding down right now, not raising the bar.
Some people might say 2017-18 was a fluke, an outlier. Fleury-haters like to say he’s an unreliable playoff goaltender and would argue that one good season doesn’t warrant statements about him improving with age.
So, let’s handle those two points.
Debunking the “Bad Playoff Goalie” Narrative
Marc-Andre Fleury struggled in the playoffs for a period of time. Yes, that is a fact. In the four seasons following their first Cup win, Fleury failed to post a playoff save percentage above .900. Three of those four years, they lost in the first round (and the one other year they lost in the second round).
Since then, though, he’s returned to form. Maybe he’s had a poor game now and then, but when you’ve played 135 playoff games, you’re gonna have a few unmemorable ones. That is nearly an additional two full seasons worth of games he’s played on top of the regular season starts. (And when you remember that goalies start 45-60 games, we’re really looking at closer to three years worth of games…)
Fleury’s Most Recent Playoff Dominance
Fleury is 75-58 in playoffs for his career. He’s won three Stanley Cups and been all the way to the finals on two other occasions. His first dominant runs were back a decade ago, but he’s done it again now with his play in Vegas. His .927 save percentage and 2.24 GAA in playoffs last season are the latest in a steady upwards-trend on his playoff stats since those rough years. The bad ones, especially now, feel so long ago…
In fact, he was back at his highest level a year earlier too, with the Penguins in 2016-17. He went 9-6 with a .924 save percentage that year. People forget that Fleury had carried Pittsburgh all the way to the Conference Finals while Matt Murray was hurt. However, with an expansion draft looming, they were quick to hand the reigns back to Murray when he returned.
Fleury played on his head to get them that far. Would Murray have done the same? Its hard to say, but Fleury was on another level for those first two rounds, especially against the Washington Capitals. Those types of performances don’t come easily. On the other hand, many firmly believe Pittsburgh could have won the Cup with Fleury still in net the rest of the way.
Fleury’s Regular Season Play Hasn’t Waivered
The flip side of the concerns over Fleury are the same as they are for every other middle-aged goaltender: how long until age catches up with you? So far, Fleury seems to be unphased by time. Again, Fleury posted career-highs for single-season save percentage, GAA, and win percentage in 2017-18. Not only that, but his previous highs came in recent years too. His .921 save percentage in 2015-16 stands above all his younger years. Only three times has his GAA crept above the 3.00 line for a full season, and two of those were his rookie and sophomore seasons.
Marc-Andre Fleury has a salary progression that reflects his consistent improvement with age too. He has to be one in a very, very small group of NHL players to never experience a pay reduction in their career. At the end of each deal, he’s been on, Fleury has received a raise on his next contract. It started with an entry-level contract after the 2003 draft and continued through to today.
Crunching Numbers for Marc-Andre Fleury
Currently at $5.75 mil, Fleury ranks as the 12th highest paid goalie in the league. His recently-signed contract extension starts in 2020-21, raising his hit yet again. That future cap hit will be a whopping $7.0 million annually, through 2022-23. At current dollars, this would rank fourth-highest among goalies, tied with Tuukka Rask and Pekka Rinne. That being said, others will surely be up in that pay grade by then as the cap continues to expand.
The major concern, again, is his age and ability to maintain production through the years. He’ll be 35 when that deal kicks in; a 35-year-old goalie earning $7.0 million annually. Better yet, he’ll be 38 when that deal actually ends. How sure can anyone be that Fleury can still post top-notch numbers in 5 or 6 years?
Fleury’s Health Concerns
If there’s one thorn in Fleury’s side, it’s his injury history. Unfortunately, he’s had multiple concussions, something that only gets worse over time. After missing eight games after a concussion in 2015-16, another concussion forced him to miss 25 games last season.
Fleury knows from experience, and from the experience of former teammates like Sidney Crosby, just how detrimental concussions can be. Another concussion could mean missing more time than ever before, while also creating an increased potential for lifelong symptoms. Concussions aren’t usually your average injury with goalies, as there’s less contact or high-speed collisions in that position. He’s managed to have a few, so the odds of another may be higher for him than any other goalie.
Even if it isn’t a concussion, injuries become more and more of a concern with age. The Florida Panthers are dealing with that for their future Hall-of-Famer, Roberto Luongo. Every year is tougher on him than the last, and at some point, Fleury will feel that too.
For Now, All is Well…
Vegas made a major commitment to Marc-Andre Fleury and will have to live with the consequences: good or bad. To their benefit, Fleury is probably the best guy to gamble on. He’s continuing to improve as time goes by and hasn’t worn out at all yet. Although he’s 33, he plays and looks like a 25-year-old.
In comparison to his Vegas goaltending peers, he’s easily the best too. Malcolm Subban, Oscar Dansk, and Maxime Lagace might all be significantly younger, but Fleury is still significantly better. Subban finished last year with an outstanding 13-4-2 record, plus a .910 save percentage and 2.68 GAA. As strong as those stats are, Fleury’s .927 save percentage and 2.24 GAA is much better.
Dansk went undefeated with a .946 save percentage and 1.78 GAA; this was in a tiny three-game sample size though, and he played the rest of the year in the AHL. Lastly, Lagace finished 6-7-1, sporting a less-than-impressive .867 save percentage and 3.92 GAA. In his defense, he’d never suited up for NHL action before and was slated to be an AHL backup last year when he got thrown into the fire.
All-in on Marc-Andre Fleury
Until he starts to show signs of slowing, Fleury will be the bonafide starter for the Golden Knights. He deserves that as well, proving time and time again to be among the league’s elite in net. Plenty of Penguins fans express disdain over losing him, a fair sentiment over such an admirable, fun-loving, and excellent goalie.
Barring another concussion or significant injury, Marc-Andre Fleury will likely play at the NHL level until that contract extension expires. Heck, he might last a few years beyond that too. Whether or not Vegas is happy about paying him $7.0 million a season for those last few years remains to be seen, but for now, it looks like a fair risk to take.
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