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November 14, 2018

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With contract extension, can Fleury continue his elite play well into his 30s?

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Alex Brandon / AP

Golden Knights goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, right, talks during a break in an NHL hockey practice, Friday, June 1, 2018, in Washington.

If Marc-Andre Fleury can maintain his elite level of play from last season, his recently inked three-year contract extension worth $21 million will be a bargain for the Golden Knights. But if father time catches up to him before the deal ends, it could hurt Vegas in the final years of the deal.

Friday the Golden Knights signed goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury to a contract extension that will keep him in Las Vegas through the 2021-22 season, when he will be 37 years old.

The three-year deal with an average annual value of $7 million makes Fleury the third-highest paid goalie in the NHL, and the highest paid player on the Golden Knights.

“We thought that a three-year extension was the appropriate extension in terms of time,” General Manager George McPhee said. “Marc-Andre is a very athletic, very quick, very agile goaltender, not one of the big, lumbering “hit me” goaltenders, and we thought we could get four very good years out of him and the deal was there so we did it.”

McPhee believes Fleury’s athletic style of goaltending is a key to him playing well into his late 30s. At only 180 pounds Fleury is one of the lightest starting goalies in the NHL. Only the Penguins Matt Murray (178 pounds) and the Bruins’ Tukka Rask (176 pounds) weigh less.

“I don’t have the body of a 22-year-old guy, but I’ve had the opportunity to gain a lot of experience throughout my career,” Fleury said. “Mentally I think it’s a big part of the game and playing goalie. I’ve learned a lot and improved in that aspect of my game, and I think that’s made me a better goalie.”

Because the position relies so heavily on the mental aspects of the game — reading plays and anticipating where the puck will be — goaltenders play longer than most positions in hockey.

In the last decade the average age of the top 15 goalies in the league based on save percentage was 29.11, which is higher than both forwards and defensemen. In that span, an average of four of the top 15 goalies were over age 32.

The best current examples of goalies continuing to play well into their late 30s are Nashville’s Pekka Rinne, Florida’s Roberto Luongo and New York’s Henrik Lundqvist.

Rinne just won his first Vezina Trophy as the league’s top goalie, at age 35. The Predators' netminder has put together two of his best performances in the NHL in his last two seasons.

At age 39, Luongo played in only 33 games this season for the Panthers but posted an impressive .924 save percentage, which is the second best of his career. Luongo has a slightly better save percentage in his five seasons after age 33 (.920) than his 13 seasons prior (.919).

Lundqvist, 36, is still regarded as one of the best goaltenders in the NHL despite playing behind a porous Rangers’ defense the last few seasons.

“Goaltenders can play longer than most of the positions,” McPhee said. “They’re not doing all the skating that all the skaters are doing obviously, so goaltenders can typically play longer. We made this decision (to sign Fleury to an extension) based on some analytics, some experience, and the type of athlete that Marc-Andre is.”

Fleury’s goals saved above average last season with the Golden Knights was a sky-high 20.77. The advanced statistic measures a goalie’s performance against the league average, and Fleury’s was the highest of his career by far. Last year, for example, his goals saved above average was minus-4.80.

“When we made the expansion draft claim for Marc-Andre, our staff and (goaltending coach) Dave Prior believed that we could get him playing as well as he’s ever played and maybe even better, and that’s exactly what happened,” McPhee said. “(Prior) went to work with Marc-Andre and he was open-minded and worked well with Dave and had a terrific season.”

What accounted for Fleury’s sudden improvement in his 14th season in the NHL?

“I think (Prior) asked that we (as goalies) challenge a little more,” Fleury said. “He wants us to challenge and play the shooter straight. Maybe it’s something that I forgot a bit, and I was playing deeper, looking for passes and reading plays. You don’t want to be too far out, but you play the shooter square and whatever happens after you try to react to it.”

The further a goalie comes out of his crease, the more he cuts off the angles and gives the shooter less net to aim at. With Fleury’s small frame, if he sits too close to his own goal line it forces him to make more difficult, reactionary saves, thus decreasing his consistency.

In 2017-18, Fleury had a career-high quality start percentage of .674, a drastic improvement from .471 during his last season in Pittsburgh.

“(Prior) saw some things, and I’m not going to reveal them, that he thought that Marc-Andre could do better,” McPhee said. “He’s always loved his talent and attitude and he just thought with some good coaching that he could be even better than he’s been. The marriage between those two has worked very, very well.”

If Fleury can continue learning from Prior it only increases his chances of playing well into his later years.

“I don’t think I’m a slow goalie yet,” Fleury said, laughing. “I don’t intend to be. We’ll see what happens over the years, but I think if I can make the first save consistently for our team, I have a lot of confidence in our defense to help me with rebounds or guys around the net, so I think we’ll be just fine.”

Entering his 15th season as a pro, Fleury is fully aware he must maintain his physique to play at a high level. He has a history of concussions, with three recorded instances including one last season that forced him to miss two months of action. Other than the head injuries, Fleury has remained mostly injury free.

“I think (you have to) manage your body,” Fleury said. “Your schedule can get pretty busy at times and I think I’ve gotten better at that. Seeking help from the training staff, trying to stay loose and getting rest when you can. Little things can make a difference down the road to stay sharp and stay healthy.”

There are plenty of examples of goalies faltering with age. The winningest netminder in NHL history, Martin Brodeur, played until he was 42 but had a dismal save percentage of .908 in his final seven seasons after age 35.

McPhee is confident Fleury will remain a top goaltender worth $7 million per season for the entirety of the extension.

“He’s very youthful, very quick and were he one of the bigger, heavier goaltenders we would be more concerned,” McPhee said. “He relies on talent and quickness and we believe that the three-year extension was the exact right term for him.”

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