In the annals of NHL history, identifying the greatest player(s) ever is actually a pretty straightforward exercise. Save for a few divergent opinions, you’ll generally get a ‘Mount Rushmore’ of Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Bobby Orr and Gordie Howe, with the ‘Great One’ standing above the rest in the eyes of most.
A similar exercise among goaltenders is less of a sure thing. Modern fans tend to gravitate towards the likes of Martin Brodeur, Patrick Roy and Dominik Hasek in a ‘greatest ever’ conversation, while those who can recall the ‘Original Six’ era still tout the virtues of netminders like Jacques Plante and Terry Sawchuk.
Now, I’m not here to weigh in on the ‘best goalie ever’ debate, but rather to wonder if another name needs to be added to the conversation. On Wednesday night, Marc-Andre Fleury bolstered an already remarkable 2020-21 season by moving into third place all-time in career wins, surpassing Roberto Luongo and trailing just Brodeur and Roy. Does a late-career renaissance with the Vegas Golden Knights put him in the ‘best ever’ discussion?
Fleury backstopped the Pittsburgh Penguins to three Stanley Cups, earning him a tie with seven other goalies (including Brodeur) for 13th on the all-time list. Ahead on the list is Roy, who added two more championships to the two that famously “blocked his ears” from being able to hear Jeremy Roenick during the 1996 playoffs.
But what if Fleury wins another Cup? As part of the contending Golden Knights, another triumph would match his idol Roy, along with an impressive group that includes Sawchuk (he’s still a ways back from Plante’s six Cups). It also might put his 17-year career in a more elite context.
Look, Stanley Cups are a proven measure of greatness, but they aren’t the end-all and be-all – at least not in terms of individual success. Grant Fuhr is the owner of five Cups, but also a career .887 save percentage and 3.38 goals against average.
Fleury’s numbers aren’t Fuhr-like, but they don’t immediately stand out as belonging in any ‘greatest ever’ conversation, either. His .913 career save percentage places him 34th all-time, while 66 career shutouts leave him in sole possession of 15th. The most glaring void on the 36-year-old’s resume is unquestionably his Vezina Trophy record, where he incredibly doesn’t even boast a top-three finish.
Fleury’s 2020-21 renaissance campaign could, however, change that. Robin Lehner’s injury absence opened the door for more opportunities for the oft-rumored trade candidate. And he has delivered, establishing a new career-high (to date) in GAA (2.07) and hovering around a career-best save percentage, sporting a .926 mark that’s exactly one point away from his best. Finally winning a Vezina in year 17 would be a fitting chapter in an unlikely career.
Fleury’s ultimate legacy is right there in his recent achievement: 490 wins. Toss in 81 playoff victories and he’s clearly done what he needed to do to help some pretty great teams. After 375 wins in Pittsburgh, his second life in Vegas has now produced 115 more.
And he’s not done. Fleury may once again be made available via trade this summer, although his $7 million cap hit for next season will surely look far less onerous to opposing GMs than the remaining $14 million in total cap hit did before this season. At 691, Brodeur is surely out of reach, but Roy’s 551 is there for the taking if Fleury plays two or three more seasons at a high level. In other words, don’t rule it out.
But there’s still time for all that. For now, Fleury and the Golden Knights are focused on the immediate task at hand: a Cup pursuit. We don’t yet know if it will be the former No. 1 overall pick between the pipes during Vegas’ playoff run, but he will have his fingertips all over this season for the club, regardless of how it ends. And if that helps bolster his standing in the league’s all-time goalie hierarchy, then all the better.
I may be a Leafs fan at heart (I’ve witnessed their highs and lows first-hand as a Scotiabank Arena employee), but I’m also a veteran freelance sportswriter who loves a good story. And there’s been no better story in hockey over the past few years than the Vegas Golden Knights. I’m excited to be covering the NHL again on the Golden Knights’ beat.