The past two weeks have been a rough time for the Vegas Golden Knight‘s former number one goalie and Vegas fans alike. Last week, seemingly out of nowhere, Marc-André Fleury, the face of the franchise and the best-voted goalie in all the NHL (2020-21 Vezina Trophy winner), was shipped to the Chicago Blackhawks in a head-scratching move.
This came after a Vezina-winning season where often times Fleury put the team on his back. It came after Fleury played some of his best hockey in the second round of the playoffs against the Colorado Avalanche, and secured the Golden Knights a Stanley Cup Semifinals berth. It even came after Fleury was arguably the face of the franchise since the inception of the Golden Knights.
In November of 2020, I came across a posting that said The Hockey Writers were looking for writers and I applied, not knowing what I was getting myself into. What I got was the opportunity to cover one of the most exciting franchises in recent NHL memory; the Golden Knights. Ever since I started covering the Golden Knights, I have grown more fond of them, and they hold a certain place in my heart. However, it didn’t take me covering the Golden Knights to appreciate Fleury as a goalie. My appreciation for him started way back in 2009.
The Early Years
Ever since being drafted first overall in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft, eyes have been steadfastly pasted on Fleury. Following a trend where goalies were selected within the first ten picks of the draft (Rick DiPietro at No. 1 in 2000, Carey Price at No. 5 in 2005), it seemed Fleury was slated to become the next big goalie of his generation. The Sorel, Quebec native had enjoyed a successful major junior career, and was ready to bring his talent to the big-time.
At the beginning of his career in the NHL, Fleury played great for a 22-year-old goalie, as he enjoyed a 40-win season in 2006-07; not too shabby. Still, it took some time for him, as well as the Pittsburgh Penguins, to really hit their stride, mainly due to the poor defense in front of the netminder on a nightly basis.
That all changed the next season, as the Penguins, highlighted by names such as Fleury, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, and Sergei Gonchar made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final, where they faced the Detroit Red Wings. In those playoffs Fleury was masterful, posting a 1.97 goals-against average, as well as a .933 save percentage. Sadly, these numbers wouldn’t be enough to procure a Stanley Cup, as the Penguins lost in six games.
It wouldn’t take long for the Penguins to get back to the Final, as they returned the very next season. In a regular season that saw Fleury post a remarkable 35 wins in 62 games, Pittsburgh dominated its way through the playoffs, and set up a date with destiny: A rematch against the Red Wings for the Stanley Cup. If you were a hockey fan in the mid-2000s, then you can vividly remember the sprawling Stanley Cup-winning save Fleury had to make on Nicklas Lidstrom in order to secure Pittsburgh’s first Stanley Cup since 1992-93. (from ‘The forgotten story of the Penguins’ 2009 Stanley Cup-clinching win,’ Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 06/10/2019)
After watching the highlights from this series, my then-nine-year-old brain took notice and fell in love with Fleury’s play. At that point in my life, all I wanted was to be a goalie. I would emulate my favorite goalie of all time, Dominik Hasek, in my basement while playing shinny hockey, and would study footage of Patrick Roy for hours. I would even pay attention to the different equipment goalies would wear, because the only thing I loved more than hockey was the equipment.
Fleury gained notoriety for having bright-yellow Koho pads when he first entered the league. When I first took notice of him he was decked out in the finest Reebok gear I had ever seen. His white pads with golden trim we’re what I strived to own in grade five. In my school locker, a picture of Fleury and his gear was taped to the side of my door, serving as a reminder of what I truly wanted.
It wasn’t just his equipment that I enjoyed, it was his style of play as well. Although not as flashy as Hasek, I saw a lot of similarities in Fleury’s play in terms of his desperation and acrobatic saves, and although not as technically sound as Roy or Martin Brodeur, I managed to see quite a few similarities in his play as well. In my opinion, Fleury brought a perfect balance of agility, desperation, and technical ability to the position.
After that Stanley Cup-winning season, Fleury and the Penguins went on to become top contenders almost every year throughout the 2010s. Although the former first overall pick was constantly in the top of the goaltending categories over the stretch of those years, he never seemed to be good enough to capture a Vezina Trophy. The statistic is head-scratching when you go over all that Fleury had accomplished with the Penguins in the 2010s.
He procured six seasons of 30 wins or more (42 wins in 2011-12) during eight seasons as a starter for the Penguins. His GAA and SV% were always within the top 10 of goalies in the NHL, and more importantly, he was a face of the Pittsburgh franchise. Some said Fleury was getting snubbed was because he would get “carried” by his teammates and that he wasn’t that great of a goalie. Dumbfounded was how I felt when I would hear these types of remarks, but after a while, I started to wonder, “Could it be true?”
These types of rumors became more prevalent during the 2015-16 & 2016-17 seasons, where the Penguins captured back-to-back Stanley Cups, but behind new starter Matt Murray, as opposed to Fleury. It seemed that his time with the club that had chosen him first overall way back in 2003 was now coming to an end, and with the looming expansion draft near, the writing was on the wall.
A New Beginning
After being selected by the newly-minted Golden Knights in the expansion draft, many questions surrounded the role in which Fleury would occupy while in Sin City. Would he be a starter? Is he just here to mentor? The majority of the fans were concerned with if he still had some gas left in the tank.
It’s safe to say he had plenty still left in the tank, as he Fleur-ished (see what I did there) in his first season as a Golden Knight, collecting 29 wins in only 46 games, as well as four shutouts. In the playoffs, surprisingly, he was even more amazing, leading the team all the way to the Stanley Cup Final and collecting 13 wins and four shutouts (yes, the same amount he had in the regular season), in only 20 games.
Although they would ultimately fall short to the Washington Capitals in that Final, Fleury’s play that season left an imprint on the organization, and was rewarded by the Golden Knights with a three-year/ $21 million dollar contract. After falling out of favor as the starter in Pittsburgh, Fleury had made a name for himself for his new team in Vegas, and with no “superstars” such as Crosby, Malkin, or Letang on this Golden Knight’s team, fans finally saw how great of a goalie he was.
The 2018-19 Season
Fleury’s 2018-19 season was even more spectacular than his first. Now occupying the starter position for the Golden Knights, and healthy, he strung together one of his most masterful seasons in his career. He played in 61 games that season, winning 35, and procured an outstanding eight shutouts. He also held a 2.51 GAA and .913 SV% to go along with his wins. Remember, he did this all at the age of 34, a time when most goalies are slowly declining in their play.
Fans of Fleury came out in full effect after the season wrapped, citing that his numbers should be good enough to finally get him that long-eluded Vezina trophy. Still, that season of marvelous play was not enough to help him secure it. Instead, He finished fourth in voting behind future teammate Robin Lehner, Ben Bishop, and that year’s winner, Andrei Vasilevskiy.
At the impending age of 35, with time against him, the answer to the question of if Fleury would ever have Vezina Trophy hardware added to his mantle was starting to look a lot like a no. Still, if there was one goalie who thrived while playing under-estimated, it was Fleury. Although he hasn’t matched the same numbers until this day, he still had one last season of brick-wall play left while he donned a Vegas jersey.
The Vezina-Winning Season
The 2020-21 season was different from all the others we had seen as fans of the NHL. For one, the season was shortened, as the teams elected to play a 56-game season. Two, only intra-division play was allowed, mainly due to the risk of traveling associated with the pandemic. An unassuming season of sorts, I expected there to be a lot of boring games. I’m happy to say that I was wrong.
When it came to Fleury’s play, it was surprising to say the least, seeing as he was in contention for the starter role with newly-signed Lehner, due to the fact that the Golden Knights were underachieving. I wrote an article early in the season and explained how it seemed the team would “take periods off” and just coast. Then, when pressure was applied, they scrambled to try to make a comeback.
This worked for a couple of games, but it quickly caught up to them as teams started to take notice. Throughout many games, if it wasn’t for the play of their starter in Fleury, they would have dropped more games than they won. The only reason they had a fighting chance was because of the Quebec native who occupied a spot in between the pipes.
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Just take a look at this series against the Minnesota Wild at the beginning of March, where I breakdown the three key factors that led to the team capturing their wins. Although the Golden Knights were sluggish throughout the series, they were continuously bailed out by their number one goalie. His ability to track the puck, stick with it, and at times come up with highlight-reel desperation saves are what allowed Vegas to compete in many games throughout the season.
At the beginning of the 2020-21 season there was news that Fleury was being shopped around, along with his $7 million salary cap hit. It’s amazing last season was such an amazing success, and that he played the way he did, considering trade rumours were constantly flying around him. That, along with the internal competition he had with Lehner, pointed to Fleury being the odd man out.
Against all odds Fleury thrived, and proved that at the ripe age of 36 he could still hang with the big guns. I am going to be honest, if Vezina Trophy voting counted the playoffs, then Vasilevskiy would have won by a mile. But, that is not the case. In his 17th season, Fleury’s 26-10 record, as well as his 1.98 GAA and .928 save percentage, were what he needed to finally capture the Vezina Trophy.
What makes Fleury such a great goalie is not only his play, but his constant involvement and charitable contributions within the community. From donating an entire playground to a in Pittsburgh, to playing street-hockey with local Nevada children, to even pledging a minimum $500,000 to help out gameday staff during the pandemic, the goalie has always been a central figure in community outreach.
His ability to become a factor in helping the community which he played within led him to being nominated for the King Clancy Award in 2021. Although he eventually lost to fellow goaltender Pekka Rinne, there’s no denying the positive impact the Quebec native has had on every community he’s played in through his various charitable contributions.
A Lasting Legacy in Vegas
Fleury will always hold a special place in the hearts of Golden Knights fans. As an original member of the expansion team, having gone through various ups and downs the past four years, Fleury has solidified himself as a lasting figure in franchise lore. The amount he has done for the city of Las Vegas is ample, and should be appreciated by many a fan, no matter which team they root for.
With a new home in Chicago, I think I speak for all Golden Knights fans when I wish him the best of luck in the Windy City. Thank you for your four years of outstanding play, charitable work, and influence in Vegas and best of luck to you Marc-André. We look forward to seeing your name on the Hall of Fame ballot in the years to come. Bonne chance en Chicago!
Michael Vidakis is a Montreal native who writes for the Vegas Golden Knights team here at The Hockey Writers. In his spare time, he enjoys the finer things in life such as Jean-Claude Van Damme movies, staring aimlessly outside windows and tangerines.