PITTSBURGH – Lost among the throngs of reporters proselytizing over Sidney Crosby’s performance in his 2011-12 debut (and rightly so – I was doing it too) was the fact Penguins netminder Marc-Andre Fleury posted a shutout in the 5-0 whitewashing of the New York Islanders. And though ‘Flower’ was not as busy as his New York counterpart Anders Nilsson, the Pittsburgh goalie made several tough stops, particularly in the third period when his team got into penalty trouble.
The next day Fleury and I talked about his two biggest influences, Patrick Roy and Martin Brodeur.
“Patrick Roy was one of the first to play the butterfly style and he seems like he thrived on winning a lot – great under pressure in the playoffs,” Fleury said. “Marty looks like he was always having fun. You could see him smiling during games and I like that he wasn’t predictable; sometimes he would play butterfly, sometimes it would be poke-check, two-pad stack.”
A combination of the two kinda sounds like Fleury – a netminder who always has a smile on his face and plays well under pressure situations. Clearly he has learned from his gods and I think he might join them one day.
Roy and Brodeur are the two winningest goaltenders in the history of the NHL. If anyone can catch them, it’s Fleury.
Naturally, Brodeur will be tougher to catch. He’s the all-time leader with 629 regular season wins and counting, though at 39 years old and 1,141 games played – plus 181 playoff bouts – he doesn’t have much more hockey in him. Brodeur has always been a workhorse, but injuries have dogged him recently.
Now skooch over to Fleury. At his current pace, the Pens goalie will end this season with 227 career wins (he’s at 11, on pace for 43) at 27 years old. If he averages 35 wins over the next 13 seasons, he’ll be up to 682 wins, easily passing Brodeur, whom I can’t see winning enough games between the rest of this campaign and a possible return next year to get enough distance at the top.
The biggest reason Fleury can do this is because of the Pens ensemble. Even without Crosby and Evgeni Malkin last season, Pittsburgh was a playoff team that earned home-ice advantage. In a sneaky sort of way, the fact they bowed out in the first round to Tampa actually helped Fleury’s cause, since he came into this year fresh instead of laboring from a long post-season run.
Now with Crosby, Malkin and Jordan Staal all healthy at the same time and joined by James Neal on the wing, the Penguins are going to be great for a long time. The defense is solid behind those names and under coach Dan Bylsma, the whole squad plays an effective system that limits Fleury’s exposure to barrages from the opposition. Pittsburgh gives up the fourth-fewest amount of shots per game in the NHL (27.6) and doesn’t have to kill a lot of penalties (sixth-least overall in times shorthanded). Given the way Crosby protects and possesses the puck, I would expect that first efficiency to get even better this season.
And at the end of the day, Fleury is just a great goaltender. He won’t get burnt out because the Pens have a trustworthy backup, Brent Johnson, who can play 20 games and not look out of place. Plus, there are some built-in historical advantages Fleury has over his heroes. Both Roy and Brodeur logged a lot of ice time in an era where ties existed. Now, many of those ties would be shootout wins. Fleury has just two ties in his NHL career and won’t be getting any more.
Not only that, but Brodeur lost an entire season to the lockout, a campaign that surely would have netted him at least another 35 wins, if not 40. Fleury was still developing at the time, so his NHL wins trajectory wasn’t really affected, even though he started so young in the league.
Brodeur’s career record sounds unbeatable, but I think Fleury has the math and opportunity to challenge him.
Ryan Kennedy is THN's associate senior writer and a regular contributor to THN.com. His column appears Wednesdays and The Hot List appears Tuesdays. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/THNRyanKennedy.