Marc-Andre Fleury may seem like an obvious choice as the winner of the 2021 Unmasked Goalie of the Year, but the reasons for selecting him go beyond winning his first Vezina Trophy, voted as the top goalie in the NHL on June 29 or becoming the third goalie in NHL history to win 500 games on Dec. 9.
Though each achievement qualifies Fleury for the honor, what happened between the two, during a miserable slump to start this season as the Chicago Blackhawks new No. 1 goalie, put his candidacy over the top for an award that has strived to look beyond the statistical surface since first being handed out four years ago.
Fleury, who was traded to the Blackhawks on July 27, less than one month after winning the Vezina Trophy with the Vegas Golden Knights, made a subtle change to his technique after starting the season 1-7-0 with a 4.11 goals-against average and .881 save percentage.
“Playing overlap on the post when guys are coming at an angle instead of sometimes playing one-knee down or stand-up or reverse-VH,” Fleury explained of the change. “It’s not something I’ve done before or worked on before.”
In simple terms, the overlap technique is a butterfly save execution on plays from sharp angles, typically below the bottom of the face-off circle. The name comes from the short-side skate that is placed outside of that post rather than up against it, usually slightly below the goal line depending how low the attack gets.
If a goalie were to drop into a butterfly with their skate against the post, the very nature of that drop pushes them away from that short-side post because the skates flare out in the butterfly, leaving a gap between the arm and post. By positioning the skate outside the post, Fleury can keep his torso lined up with that post even if he drops into a wide-flare butterfly. At the same time, he can keep that short-side skate free from any interference with the post, which makes it a lot easier to move it to grab an edge to push into the middle in case there’s a pass from that angled attack, or push across if it becomes a wraparound.
“I feel like I was getting caught on the post,” Fleury explained. “When you go outside the post, you can go down and you still can push across.”
Fleury had used a variety of sharp-angle techniques before, including the popular reverse-VH, in which a goalie drops the lead pad to the ice and anchors the back skate just above the goal line to drive their body into a post seal. He also used traditional VH, or one-pad down, which places the lead pad vertically up against the post with the back pad on the ice along the goal line.
“And sometimes I’d just stand up,” Fleury said.
There are strengths and weaknesses to each option.
Fleury said he felt the reverse-VH left too big a hole over his short-side shoulder when he dropped into the post using that technique. And he said he didn’t like the hole between his blocker and his body when he used traditional VH, or one-pad down on his glove side post. For a lot of goalies, the downside of using an overlap is it places more of their frame — and therefore net coverage — outside the post if the puck is passed into the middle, requiring a butterfly push to regain that coverage.
That’s not a problem for Fleury, who remains among the NHL’s quickest lateral goalies at age 37.
“It’s good because sometimes you are in between with other ways,” Fleury said.
That’s not to say this change is the biggest reason Fleury is 8-3-1 with a 2.13 GAA, .933 save percentage and two shutouts since Chicago named Derek King as coach to replace Jeremy Colliton on Nov. 6. Fleury credits improved defensive structure that reduced the number of outnumbered rushes and dangerous chances Chicago goalies face.
So why does adding overlap, which isn’t a new or revolutionary technique, elevate Fleury past four other candidates with more wins in 2021 or the seven with better save percentages in the calendar year? Why was it a difference-maker ahead of goalies like Juuse Saros of the Nashville Predators (36 wins, .925) and Andrei Vasilevskiy of the Tampa Bay Lightning (48 wins, .926), the only two to finish ahead of Fleury (35 wins, .922) in each category?
In part, it’s because Fleury took the suggestion to try overlap from his new playing partner, Kevin Lankinen, and worked on it with his new goalie coach, Jimmy Waite. Fresh off his first Vezina and sharing his first William M. Jennings Trophy with Robin Lehner for allowing the fewest goals in the NHL with Vegas last season (124), Fleury was willing to try something new after seeing it work for a goalie with one more career NHL win (19) than Fleury has seasons played.
It’s not a coincidence that Fleury remains willing to adapt his style even as he approached 500 NHL wins. From adding reverse-VH to his game when Mike Bales became the Pittsburgh Penguins goaltending coach in 2013, to using strobe glasses to train in the offseason and warm up his eyes before games even now, the only thing as consistent as Fleury’s smile and desire to have fun playing the game has been his willingness to try new things to improve his game.
“Still learning,” Fleury said with a smile. “Always learning.”
It’s the same mentality that allowed Roberto Luongo to play until injuries caught up to him at 37 and with 489 NHL wins, fourth all time behind Martin Brodeur (691), Patrick Roy (551) and Fleury (501). It’s a mentality that should allow Fleury to keep climbing that list for as long as he stays healthy, and one that makes him the perfect fit as the 2021 Unmasked Goalie of the Year.