“I don’t know. I wish I had a better face,” Fleury said.
How can you not be happy for him?
After he lost the No. 1 job with the Pittsburgh Penguins and was left unprotected in the 2017 NHL Expansion Draft, he had the best season of his career, helping Vegas shatter records for first-year teams and advance to the Stanley Cup Final. This is his reward.
It’s not just that he has cashed in. He has a new home and peace of mind.
Remember, he spent the 2016-17 season battling with Matt Murray in Pittsburgh, unsure of where he would play in 2017-18. When he arrived in Vegas, he knew he would be a No. 1 goaltender again, but not for how long, as he was signed through 2018-19.
Without this extension, he would have entered the upcoming season in the last year of his contract and had to deal with everything that came with that. Now he can relax and focus on hockey, which is when he tends to play his best.
“It simply eliminates a potential distraction,” general manager George McPhee said. “We know what we have in the player and the person. We know we want him to finish his career in Vegas, and we know he can give us very good goaltending for four more years.”
But it’s fair to ask how the Golden Knights can be so sure.
Fleury will turn 37 on Nov. 28, 2021, early in the last season of the extension, and the fact he is coming off his best season could be a red flag. Can he match the 2.24 goals-against average and .927 save percentage he had last season, let alone beat them? Can he stay at that level? Are the Golden Knights buying this stock at its peak?
Well, look at it from their perspective: If you want to sign a player, you have to be realistic about what it will take to close the deal. The Golden Knights still have plenty of space to maneuver under the NHL salary cap, especially if it continues to rise in the future.
“This is what the top goaltenders are being paid,” McPhee said. “He’s at that level and deserves to be at that level. It would be nice to sign him for a million dollars a year, but that’s not going to happen.”
When the Golden Knights claimed Fleury, goaltending coach Dave Prior felt Fleury could be better than ever before, one of the top five goaltenders in the NHL.
Prior was right.
Simply put, Prior focuses on positioning more than mechanics. He wants his goaltenders to hold their ground to give shooters less of the net. To do that, his goaltenders need to be athletic enough to explode laterally when necessary, as Fleury is. Fleury tweaked his game and was even better than his final numbers showed.
If not for the season finale on April 7 — when he allowed six goals on 18 shots in a 7-1 loss to the Calgary Flames, while Vegas had nothing at stake, rested injured players and worked others back into the lineup — Fleury would have had a 2.14 goals-against average and .931 save percentage and led each category among goaltenders who played at least 45 games.
Fleury was 12-3 with a 1.68 goals-against average, .947 save percentage and four shutouts entering the Cup Final, the favorite to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as most valuable player of the Stanley Cup Playoffs at that point.
“[Fleury and Prior] worked very well together,” McPhee said. “He’s not a big, heavy, sort of lumbering goaltender that relies on sort of a hit me style of play. He’s an athletic goaltender that we expect can continue to play at the same level.”
You can’t put a price on what Fleury has done, and will continue to do, to establish this franchise in Las Vegas, either. His teammates love him. The fans love him. The Bellagio made a sweet chocolate sculpture of him.
“You couldn’t ask for more from an athlete and a person in a community,” McPhee said. “On the ice and off the ice, he leads by example, which is the best way to lead. He is a remarkable individual, very selfless, very humble, and is always available to help in the community. He is a tremendously popular athlete in Las Vegas, and for all of these reasons, we wanted him to remain a Vegas Golden Knight.”
That Fleury said he wished he had a better face only reinforced the point: The franchise couldn’t have a better one.