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  • Can the Wild Ride A 38-Year-Old Fleury To the Playoffs?

    Tony Abbott

    Throughout the Minnesota Wild's history, time has not been a particularly great ally to their goalies. Over the past decade, the State of Hockey has seen Niklas Backstrom, Devan Dubnyk, and Cam Talbot's games tank as they approached their mid-30s.


    So, yes, when the Wild's goaltending hopes hang primarily around Marc-Andre Fleury, that's concerning. Fleury is a future Hall of Famer, but he's now towards the end of his career. He turns 38 in November, and there are already whispers about whether he intends to retire before his most recent two-year deal expires.


    That will all depend on whether he can still perform well. Fleury has done a better job than most in staving off Father Time. From his ages 30-to-36 seasons, Fleury had a .917 save percentage. Since the Original Six era ended in 1967, only five goalies with 200 games did better at those ages. Those are Dominik Hasek, Tim Thomas, Tomas Vokoun, Corey Crawford, and Roberto Luongo.


    But Fleury looked human last season. He had a .908 save percentage, his second-worst since he was 25. He didn't do much better in 11 games with Minnesota, sporting a .910 save percentage. That's virtually identical to Talbot's .911 on the season.


    With Talbot gone, only the unproven Filip Gustavsson (24 years old, .905 career save percentage) and 19-year-old Jesper Wallstedt are behind Fleury on the depth chart. It's safe to say they will have to lean on Fleury this year. Gustavsson is young, and the Wild might like his potential. Still, he only started 16 games last year on the Ottawa Senators, a basement-dwelling team.


    Gustavsson will have to play more games this year, but how many will he play realistically? If the answer is anything less than 32 starts, Fleury will have to crack 50 games on the year. Again, that's at age-38. Can he stand up to the workload? Can any goalie at that age?


    Luckily, Stathead has a tool that lets us see every goalie who has played in 50 games at age-38 or later. Who are they?


    For the post-lockout era (2005-06 to today), only five goalies have hit that mark in a single season. The list consists of two journeymen, Dwayne Roloson (who did so three times) and Curtis Joseph (twice). Three Hall of Famers are also in the mix: Martin Brodeur (twice), Hasek, and Ed Belfour.


    How did those teams fare?


    Let's start with Roloson. He backstopped the Edmonton Oilers for an astounding 63 games in 2008-09 at 39. Then at 40 and 41, he logged 50 games while playing for the New York Islanders, with a brief stop for a Tampa Bay Lightning playoff run.


    You can't hate on what Roloson did as an Old Guy in net. He posted a .912 save percentage in those three years, slightly above the league average.


    Those teams had more limited success, though. Admittedly, Edmonton was awful that season, gearing up for their run of Draft Lottery dominance. Despite Roloson's .915 performance, the Oilers mustered just 85 points and missed the playoffs. A 19-year-old John Tavares wasn't enough to get Roloson more than 79 points with the Islanders the following season.


    But in Tampa, he could take them very far as a workhorse goalie. Roloson registered a .912 save percentage for the Lightning. Despite playing 50 games, he turned it on in the playoffs. Roloson made 17 starts in 18 games, with a .924 save percentage.


    Meanwhile, the less said about Curtis Joseph's age-38 and 39 seasons, the better. He posted a .902 and .893 save percentage, "leading" Wayne Gretzky's Phoenix Coyotes to the basement two years straight. In fairness, probably not much you can do with a bankrupt team there.


    So if Roloson, very much a Guy in the David Roth-ian sense, can power a contending team at age 41, what could Old Hall of Famers accomplish? After all, you're going to compare Fleury more to the likes of Brodeur and Belfour than to Roloson or Joseph, all due respect.


    So let's start with Hasek, who miraculously played 56 games with the 2006-07 Detroit Red Wings at the age of 42! Hasek had a solid .913 save percentage in the regular season, then started all 18 playoff games. He lost in the Conference Finals to the Anaheim Ducks, but a .923 save percentage is nothing to sneeze at.


    You could safely say that Hasek is the best goalie of all time, not merely a Hall of Famer. You might also point out that you can't go wrong when your top defensive center and defensemen are Pavel Datsyuk and Nicklas Lidström, making life easy for you. Still, it's an incredible accomplishment.


    More so than Belfour's age-41 season. However, in fairness, he was 41, and Hasek may not be human. But he did play 58 games for a mediocre Florida Panthers team in 2006-07. Still, his .902 save percentage puts him in the Ran Out Of Gas category alongside Joseph.


    Brodeur, who started 56 games at age 38, then 59 at 39, may be Fleury's best direct comparable. They have similar longevity, consistency, and winning pedigree. They both have stellar seasons under their belts, but they are derailed by critics as simply winning many games behind outstanding teams.


    So with those parallels to Fleury in mind, how did Brodeur fare at the exact same ages Fleury is under contract for?


    Well, Brodeur looked cooked in 2010-11. In the regular season, he posted just a .903 save percentage (the league average was .911) and had a 23-26-3 record, his first losing season since his age-23 season. The New Jersey Devils, who lost a young Zach Parise after just 13 games for the season, finished with just 81 points and missed the playoffs.


    The following season, Brodeur didn't do much better on paper, with just a .908 save percentage. But the Devils surged back with help from Parise and youngsters Adam Henrique and Adam Larsson. Brodeur went 31-21-4 and took New Jersey to the Stanley Cup Final. He also had a solid .917 save percentage on the way there.


    So that's three pretty big success stories out of nine seasons. Is there a catch, though?


    Yup. You see, those workloads might catch up with your Old Goalie, even if they hit the fountain of youth beforehand. It happened to Roloson in Tampa Bay. In the first two rounds of the playoffs, he posted a .949 against the Pittsburgh Penguins, then .925 against the Washington Capitals. That was against prime Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, and Evgeni Malkin, to boot. But that dropped down to .882 in the Conference Finals.


    Hasek met a similar fate in his run to the Conference Finals. He dispatched the Calgary Flames and San Jose Sharks with a .922 and .938 performance, respectively. But that dropped to a decent-but-mortal .912 against Anaheim. Brodeur also stumbled in the Cup Final, with a .900 save percentage, by far his worst playoff series.


    That makes sense. We're talking about these players faltering after the grind of a 70-plus game season. It's hard for anyone to do it, let alone at that age.


    It's also hard to get there. Plenty of other goalies have tried to play at that age, only for injuries, ineffectiveness, or both to get in the way. To ignore those players and say, Well, three out of five players who did this went on deep playoff runs is inadvisable.


    However, there is precedent, as inconsistent as it has been, even for Hall of Fame players. Minnesota has a team that should, at least theoretically, make life easy on Fleury. They'll have a whole training camp where they can play to his tendencies, which are much different than the Dubnyks and Talbots that came before him. Will running Fleury out for 50-plus starts work out for the Hall of Famer? For better or worse, we're about to find out.


    All data comes from Stathead, Hockey Reference, and Evolving Hockey.

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