The Vegas Golden Knights and then-GM George McPhee bluffed the Pittsburgh Penguins into giving the Golden Knights a second-round pick in addition to franchise face Marc-Andre Fleury. While other misfits needed a chance, Fleury was fresh from a dominant playoff performance that Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan controversially cut short for Matt Murray to finish the 2017 Stanley Cup run.
It was like walking into the bank for the Golden Knights, emptying the vault, and taking a lollypop, too.
However, Fleury was not without baggage and some questions. He was the 2003 first-overall pick after the Penguins traded up from the No. 3 spot to No. 1 to grab him. But his career was dotted with highs like the 2009 Stanley Cup victory and Game 7-saving stop on Nicklas Lidstrom and lows like jaw-dropping playoff meltdowns in 2012 and 2013.
A sports psychologist got Fleury on the right path in 2014, and his career arc finally carried him onto the verge of the game’s elite goalies.
Over the past four seasons with the Vegas Golden Knights, Fleury posted a cumulative .917 save percentage. Fleury ranks eighth in save percentage of the 28 goalies who made more than 140 starts in the past four seasons. Ninth in appearances.
With some irony, the goalie who ranked seventh–just ahead of Fleury in save percentage–is teammate Robin Lehner.
But those stats don’t strongly portray Fleury’s ascension into the rarified air of the best goalies in the game.
“…I never expected to play this long, either,” Fleury said when talking about his Vezina Trophy win. “…I never went into the season, or after the season, ‘Oh, I’ve got to win the Vezina’… It’s always about winning that game you’re playing in. Then win the next one. That’s what’s important.”
Fleury has played on a few great teams. He backstopped the rise of Sidney Crosby, and the Penguins like John Bonham backstopped Led Zeppelin. However, Fleury was the frontman who brought the room together when the original Vegas Misfits charged to the Stanley Cup Final in their inaugural season.
Goaltending is often a team effort, but it’s also not a coincidence when the best goaltenders have the most wins across multiple teams.
Fleury has consistently elevated his teams, on and off the ice.
It wasn’t until Vegas and 2021 that Fleury won a coveted Vezina Trophy. He posted a career-best .928 save percentage, just a tenth higher than his true breakout season as a solo star in 2017-18.
And it wasn’t until Vegas that Fleury became a Hall of Fame goalie.
Fleury now stands third all-time in wins (492). He stands above Hall-of-Famers and future Hall members Henrik Lundqvist, Ed Belfour, and Roberto Luongo.
Fleury now stands with goaltending legends Patrick Roy (551) and all-time leader Martin Brodeur (691).
“Age, experience. I’ve been around for a little while now. I understand the game a little better,” Fleury said last week. “A few little tweaks with my goalie coach. And my teammates the way they bought-in, played the system–they made me look better.”
The “Flower” made changes to his style this season. It may seem preposterous for a 36-year-old goalie to be tweaking his game, especially in significant ways, but that’s what he did.
Marc-Andre Fleury moved back in the net. He said he challenged shooters less and played deeper in the crease to use his cat-quick reflexes to make more saves and give fewer rebounds.
“Throughout my career, I’ve had to change and adapt. There are always new techniques that come out here and there,” said Fleury. “I have a goalie coach in the summer when I go back home and skate…I love hearing what’s new. I love watching goalies, seeing what they do–and I love trying it, right?”
A kid at heart, even at 36-years-old.
The Penguins did their level best to re-acquire Fleury last offseason. VGK ownership and GM Kelly McCrimmon declined the Penguins’ efforts to the betterment of the Golden Knights.
But how much longer can the dual goalie arrangement exist?
Vegas has needs. And a need to get a little better to get past Colorado again, and other challengers in the Western Conference may arise.
The Golden Knights goalie may not be the Golden Knights netminder for much longer as the front office huddles to determine their path forward towards the 2021-22 season and beyond. The Vegas Golden Knights have $12.5 million committed to goaltending with Fleury and Robin Lehner, which is luxury spending in times of belt-tightening.
Fleury’s $7 million salary may be what goes. No one wants that, but harsh realities don’t care about feelings.
After a transition and saving the seat beside him for his old buddy Sidney Crosby on the VGK charter flights, Fleury is Vegas. And Vegas is Fleury.
No matter what happens next, Vegas is where Marc-Andre Fleury became a Hall of Famer.