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A Joyful Fleury

Marc-Andre Fleury belongs among hockey’s royalty as he makes history.

Marc-Andre Fleury has been a bright spot in the Wild's up-and-down season. (MHM Photo / Rick Olson)

Marc-Andre Fleury always will be associated with the Pittsburgh Penguins — as he should be. He was selected first-overall by the Penguins in 2004, won three Stanley Cups with the franchise and spent the first 13 seasons of his now 20-year career in Pittsburgh.

Fleury’s three stops — Vegas, Chicago and Minnesota — since leaving the Penguins are a far smaller part of his story. Still, fans of the Golden Knights, Blackhawks and Wild should count themselves lucky that they have gotten to watch the future Hall of Famer make spectacular diving saves, flash his glove on stops that look straight out of the 1980s and play the game with a joy that make it difficult to believe he turned 39 in November.

In what has been a roller-coaster season for a Wild team that fired coach Dean Evason in late November, got close to a wild card spot by winning 11 of its first 14 games under new coach John Hynes, but then went 1-5 to fall back in the playoff race, there hasn’t been much reason for excitement.

Fleury, though, has been an exception, even if the extremely competitive netminder is unlikely to admit it. The milestones he has reached in recent weeks are a reminder that Fleury’s teammates and Wild fans are witnessing a player who belongs among hockey’s royalty.

Fleury’s workload has been more than anyone expected, or the Wild wanted, in part because a recent lower body injury to No. 1 goalie Filip Gustavsson has forced the veteran into the top role.

Nick Bjugstad’s breakaway goal past a sprawling Marc-Andre Fleury sealed Minnesota’s Game 6 victory over Vegas in 2021. (MHM Photo / Rick Olson)

A day after Gustavsson had to leave a start at Winnipeg, Fleury played in his 1,000th game in a 3-2 loss to the Jets, joining Martin Brodeur (1,266 games), Roberto Luongo (1,044) and Patrick Roy (1,029) as the only goalies to reach that mark. A week later, the Wild’s 4-3 overtime win at Columbus gave Fleury his 551st career victory, tying Roy for second place on the all-time list behind Brodeur’s 691 victories.

“I don’t know, I’m kind of happy it’s over,” Fleury said after playing in his 1,000th game. “I wish it was a win. … Obviously, very flattered by the reception from the crowd, from my teammates. It means a lot. I feel very fortunate that I’ve played for so long and I’ve got to do what I love for many years. I’m lucky for that.”

Oh, yeah, have we mentioned that there might be no bigger class act in the NHL than Fleury? He is the dream of any public relations department. Fleury answers every question after good games or bad games, the latter is the test of a player’s character, and often does it with a self-deprecating, aw-shucks approach more befitting of a rookie than a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

“We’re so proud to have him here as a teammate and as good of a player as he is on the ice, off ice he’s even better,” Wild winger Marcus Foligno said after Fleury’s 1,000th game. “We’re lucky to have him in our room, and it’s great to be a part of something so special in a player’s career.”

Marc-Andre Fleury makes plenty of eye-popping, acrobatic saves in net. (MHM Photo / Rick Olson)

He’s still got it
The question is how much longer Fleury will continue to play? His incredible glove save on Columbus’ Yegor Chinakhov in overtime came right before Marco Rossi ended the game and (rightfully) was all anyone was talking about afterward. Even in an ugly 4-0 loss to Dallas on Monday night, Fleury made a spectacular, swiping glove save on the goal line on a shot from a stunned Sam Steel.

It’s those type of saves — not to mention the joy he takes in being a top-level prankster — that make you wonder why Fleury would consider hanging up his goalie pads. But there is the reality of the situation. Fleury and his wife have three children and being a goalie nearing the age of 40 isn’t compatible with stability.

Fleury and his family already have filed more than one change of address notice in recent years.

He was taken by Vegas in the 2017 expansion draft and became a fan favorite during his four seasons with the Golden Knights. Fleury started 20 games in the 2018 playoffs as the expansion Knights lost to the Washington Capitals in the Stanley Cup Finals. Vegas moved on from Fleury in July 2021 and he started 45 games with the Chicago Blackhawks that season before being dealt to the Wild at the 2022 trade deadline for a second-round pick.

Wild general manager Bill Guerin, who had been a teammate of Fleury’s for two seasons at the end of his career in Pittsburgh, made the trade hoping the goalie would frustrate opponents like he did the Wild in the first round of the 2021 postseason. Fleury had similar aspirations, waiving his no-trade clause in the process.

Fleury has played in 1,000 career NHL games. (MHM Photo / Rick Olson)

The Wild, however, were bounced in the first round in 2022 by the St. Louis Blues with Fleury as the main goalie, and then last spring by the Stars with Fleury as the backup. Given the Wild’s current status, it’s getting more and more difficult to believe their will be a playoff appearance this spring.

Fleury is in the final season of a two-year, $7 million contract and has no-move protection. You have to believe Guerin will do everything to place him with a contender, if the Wild continue to stumble and Fleury expresses an interest at making one last playoff run.

That will be up to Fleury.

He is more than deserving of calling his own shots at this point. But as his time in Minnesota winds down, Gustavsson and rookie Jesper Wallstedt are likely to be the Wild’s goalie duo next season, we should appreciate the brief opportunity we will have gotten to be in the midst of goaltending greatness.

Judd Zulgad is co-host of the Mackey and Judd podcast and also Judd’s Hockey Show for SKOR North. Judd covered the Vikings from 2005 to 2010 for the Star Tribune before joining SKOR North.

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