Thursday, Feb. 7, 2019 | 2 a.m.
The hockey world knew about Marc-André Fleury even before the Pittsburgh Penguins selected him with the top overall pick in the NHL Entry Draft 16 years ago. He was the teenage hotshot goalie playing for Cape Breton in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, where he cemented his place as the next big thing and even had some declaring him destined for hockey immortality. So far, so good.
Fleury sits with 431 NHL wins, the ninth-most in league history. He has won three Stanley Cup rings, five conference championship trophies and an Olympic goal medal. And he still might have some of his best hockey ahead of him considering he’s only 34 years old and is contracted for three more seasons with the Golden Knights.
So has Fleury done enough to ensure enshrinement into the Hockey Hall of Fame if he retired tomorrow?
“I don’t see how he couldn’t be,” Golden Knights defenseman Deryk Engelland says. “He’s had a phenomenal career with still some good years ahead of him.”
Team success aids Fleury’s case, but the knock on him comes in individual accolades. Fleury played in neither the 2016 nor 2017 Stanley Cup Finals with the Pittsburgh Penguins. He even got saddled with the stigma of playoff choker after several flameouts following 2009’s Stanley Cup win.
That’s hard to believe now considering that he willed the Golden Knights to the Final in their first year of existence with an astounding .947 save percentage and 1.68 goals-against average through the first three rounds of the playoffs.
He hasn’t slowed down this season. Coming out of the All-Star break, Fleury led the NHL in shutouts (6), wins (27), games played (45) and minutes on ice (2,670). The Professional Hockey Writers Association placed him second in its midseason Vezina Trophy voting for the league’s best goaltender behind Anaheim’s John Gibson.
The league general managers ultimately select the Vezina winner, but it can’t be overstated what the award would mean to Fleury’s legacy. It’s his white whale, and what could put his Hall of Fame résumé over the top.
His best finish in Vezina voting came last year when he placed fifth, and he has notched just three top-10 finishes in his career. Only two post-World War II goalies have entered the Hall of Fame without a Vezina win: Chuck Rayner, who won the Hart Trophy as league MVP in 1950, and Gerry Cheevers, who spent four years of his prime in the World Hockey Association.
“He’s one of the tops in the league; he’s been one of the tops in the league for the past 15 years,” center Pierre-Edouard Bellemare says. “He has nothing to prove, really. He’s proven himself over and over again, and still he comes every day and he’s the most humble guy on our team.”
Fleury is adding to a history of all-time great goaltenders from Quebec. The top two winningest goalies in NHL history are from the province: Martin Brodeur and Patrick Roy. Another Quebec native, Panthers netminder Robert Luongo, will soon pass Ed Belfour for third place on the all-time wins list.
Brodeur and Roy are a big reason why Fleury became a goalie. “To me, there were those two guys growing up that were so good, and obviously French, and Patrick Roy played for Montreal and Martin I was always watching, so they just made it [that] maybe more Quebec kids wanted to play goalie because of these guys,” Fleury says.
Brodeur (691 wins) and Roy (551) are almost certainly too far ahead of Fleury’s win total, but he’s only 53 victories from catching Belfour for third on the all-time wins list. Depending how long Luongo (481) and Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist (446) play, it’s not unreasonable to foresee Fleury finishing his career with no one above him in wins apart from his pair of boyhood idols.
That would make him a lock for the Hall of Fame. But the Golden Knights believe he’s already there. “He’s one of the best all-time from what I’ve seen,” Golden Knights coach Gerard Gallant says.
Does Fleury agree? He says there’s still work to be done in order to remove all doubt. “It’s something I don’t …” he says, tailing off, looking for the right words before concluding, “not yet. I’m not there yet.”
This story originally appeared in the Las Vegas Weekly.