If you’re around the right group of hockey fans, the simple question “Where do you rank Marc-Andre Fleury?” can disturb the peace in a way that’s normally reserved for Patrick Roy’s coaching debut.
It shouldn’t be a surprise, either.
After all, controversy tends to follow the rare goalies who get picked high in the first round, especially at No. 1 like Fleury. When you think of the headline-grabbing guys (at least the netminders who don’t skip White House visits), it’s often those fellows, whether it be Hall of Famer-caliber stoppers like Roberto Luongo (fourth overall, 1997) or sad stories such as Rick DiPietro (first overall, 2000).*
For many, it’s not acceptable for Fleury to rank somewhere between average and good. Sports narratives demand Hollywood-level heroics and Shakespearean tragic-lows.
Dramatists should be psyched, then, as 2013-14 represents a fork-in-the-road moment in Fleury’s career. With Tomas Vokoun sidelined for months - if not the entire season - “The Flower” gets a little room to bloom. Even so, the moment of truth is coming soon: Penguins management will eventually need to decide if he’s the franchise goalie they want him to be or if he’s trading block fodder.
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Vokoun’s injury is a bummer for hockey stats nerds in particular, as the Czech-born goalie stands, in many ways, as the polar opposite of Fleury. Fleury was the first selection of one of the most loaded drafts in NHL history; Vokoun was a ninth-round pick back in 1994. While MAF enjoyed significant “run support” in Pittsburgh, Vokoun often wallowed in obscurity, putting up impressive numbers for naught in places like Florida.
That could’ve changed when Vokoun signed with Washington, but instead, the last two seasons (first with Washington, then with Pittsburgh) probably earn an “Incomplete” grade. He was frequently competent-to-strong in both places, yet each visit was marred by injuries, making it tough not to wonder if it will all end with the question: “What if?”
Regardless, Vokoun’s loss is Fleury’s gain. But can MAF really cash in on this golden opportunity?
When you look at the numbers, it’s fair to say that Fleury is a step or two behind the elite, but his critics seem to weigh the meltdowns more heavily than the breakthroughs (like a hockey Tony Romo, minus the dimples but plus a championship ring).
To little surprise, he shines brightest in the team-centric wins category, which probably explains some of the derision. He already has 249 career regular season wins (47th all-time), peaking with 42 in 2010-12, good for second in the NHL that year. That wasn’t a fluke; Fleury finished in the top 10 - actually eighth or better - in wins six times in his career. Not bad for a guy who’s just 28-years-old.
If you look at save percentage alone, he's had four rough seasons, but only one in the last six (a .905 save percentage in 2009-10, when he still managed 37 wins). Sure, one could argue that he's only had one or two superb seasons save-percentage wise (.921 in 2007-08, maybe .918 in 2010-11), but his individual work looks pretty dependable - if unspectacular - since he really settled in as a go-to goalie.
Ultimately, that .910 career save percentage might set expectations a little too low, as he’s generated at least a .913 save percentage the past three seasons.
SOARING UP THE CHARTS
Now, if you want to argue that his percentages would be “even lower” on a lesser team, go ahead. But don’t forget to apply the same standards to goalies who benefit from rigid defense and/or great support such as Tuukka Rask, Pekka Rinne and Mike Smith. You can play that nature vs. nurture game with a ton of goalies, and really sports figures in general.
For now, it’s more than reasonable to say that Fleury’s place as an elite fantasy goalie has been restored, which is what you should really care about. His current backup Jeff Zatkoff has zero games of NHL experience, so I wouldn’t be shocked if Fleury flirts with 40 wins and 65-70 GP.
At that point, will you really care if he isn’t putting up Henrik Lundqvist-level save percentage numbers? If so, you might be a little greedy.
After the jump: Game notes, injuries and more.
* - Kari Lehtonen (second overall, 2002) is a bizarre exception, as injuries and poor supporting casts mix with occasional brilliance to make him good enough not to be considered a bust, yet flawed enough to fly relatively low under the radar.
(I think he’s really good, for what it’s worth.)