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September 25, 2021

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Fleury helped Golden Knights seize Jennings Trophy. The Vezina could be next

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Steve Marcus

Vegas Golden Knights goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury (29) adjusts his mask during a game against the San Jose Sharks at T-Mobile Arena Wednesday, April 21, 2021.

Marc-Andre Fleury will eventually be a Hall of Famer. It was a probability before he arrived in Vegas and a certainty now. 

He’s third on the all-time wins list for NHL goalies, won one Stanley Cup as a starter and assisted on two more, and his second act with the Golden Knights has cemented his legacy as an all-time great.

The one thing Fleury has always missed is individual hardware. He’s never won a major award, or even been a finalist prior to this season. Well, now he has.

With his shutout in the regular season finale Wednesday, Fleury clinched the Jennings Trophy for himself and Robin Lehner as the goalies who gave up the fewest goals in the league. 

The Jennings is first award. The Vezina Trophy as the league’s top goaltender could be next.

“A fun prize for us to win together with the hard work of our entire team,” Lehner posted on Twitter Thursday about the Jennings Trophy. “Been really cool to see the special season Marc have (sic) had and I believe that’s where the Vezina belongs.”

Before he came to Vegas, Fleury was a good goalie who was never thought of as the best player on his own team. He played with two generational stars in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin with the Penguins and although he had strong seasons, only received Vezina votes twice in 13 years in Pittsburgh, and never finished better than seventh. 

He led the Penguins to the 2009 Stanley Cup, but famously lost his starter’s role to upstart Matt Murray for the wins in 2016 and 2017.

That immediately changed with the Golden Knights. He posted a career-best .927 save percentage and 2.24 goals-against average in 2017-18 and was a lock for the Conn Smythe Award as playoff MVP had Vegas defeated Washington. He cracked the top-five in Vezina voting for the fifth time, and improved on that in 2018-19 with a fourth-place finish.

Then there’s this year. 

Fleury allowed fewer than two goals per 60 minutes for the first time in his career (1.98 GAA) and his .928 save percentage eclipsed even his mark from the inaugural season. All that came while carrying the Golden Knights through an injury to tandem-mate Lehner, starting 36 games and winning 26 of them.

“He’s going in the discussion for the best goalie in the league and it’s quite impressive that he’s able to do that every year,” forward Jonathan Marchessault said.  "Obviously he’s a future Hall of Famer, so really happy for him and hopefully he gets that great honor.”

Statistically, it was Fleury’s best season, and it came as a 36-year-old. But you don’t win the Vezina for having your best season. You need to have the best season among all goalies, and Fleury has a good claim for that as well.

Fleury’s save percentage, goals-against average, wins and six shutouts rank third among NHL goalies. He trails Islanders backstop Semyon Varlamov and Carolina rookie Alex Nedeljkovic in most of the rate stats, and Colorado’s Philipp Grubauer and Tampa Bay’s Andrei Vasilevskiy in the counting ones.

What adds to Fleury’s case is the advanced metrics. He saved a league-best 19.2 goals above expected, according to Evolving-Hockey’s count, meaning that the Golden Knights in front of him allowed 89.5 expected goals this season and he allowed 71. That number leads second-place Nedeljkovic by almost seven goals.

While the numbers may differ by stats site — Moneypuck.com has Fleury third with 17.9 goals saved above expected — it’s clear that Fleury was a major factor behind his team’s success.

Fleury has as good of a shot this season as he’s ever had. The Vezina is voted on by NHL general managers, not writers like most awards. Fleury has a sterling reputation throughout the league, and whether people like to admit it or not, there is a definite “he’s due” aspect to awarding honors.

Of course, no one owes anything to Fleury, much less the highest individual honor for a goaltender. But Fleury has earned it this season and his case is as good as it’s ever been. This might just be his year.

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