What’s old is new again.
A trio of old(er) goalies are defying aging curves seven weeks into the NHL season. It’s early still, but three of the top-four goalies in save percentage with at least five games played are 35 or older: Mike Smith (38), Marc-Andre Fleury (36) and Brian Elliott (35).
Historically, this is an age where most goalies, if they aren’t already out of the league, start to show their age. With the caveat in mind that there’s still plenty of hockey ahead, here’s a look at how each goalie has performed to date and the historical significance in play if they are able to continue their strong play the rest of the way.
Brian Elliott: 35 years old
At a per-game rate, no goalie has saved his team more goals beyond expected this season than Elliott. The Flyers haven’t exactly been a defensive juggernaut in front of him, with an expected goals against (reflection of shot quality and quantity) of nearly three goals per-game. Elliott’s actual goals-against average sits at 2.03, which means he is saving his team close to a goal per-game.
Granted he’s only played eight games, but Elliott has posted spectacular save percentages before. In the 2011-12 season, Elliott led the league with a .940 save percentage in 38 games with the St. Louis Blues.
As for how goaltenders have fared historically in their age 35 season, the best save percentage ever posted by a goalie with at least 20 games played was Sean Burke in 2002-03 with a .930 save percentage in 22 games. Next on the list, Pekka Rinne at .927 in 59 games during the 2017-18 season. Elliott currently has a save percentage of .931.
If the Flyers improve defensively in front of him and Elliott continues his strong play in the net, it’s possible he can finish with the best save percentage by an age 35 goalie in NHL history.
Marc-Andre Fleury: 36 years old
Fleury has been outstanding this season for the Golden Knights after a mediocre year last season. In 13 games, Fleury ranks top five in wins, save percentage and goals saved above expected. While Fleury has benefitted from playing behind a solid defensive team, he is still saving his team goals on most nights with highlight reel saves.
Fleury has allowed two or fewer goals in nine of his 13 games played this season. However, finishing with the best save percentage of any goalie in his age 36 season will be tough to do.
In 2010-11, Tim Thomas posted a ridiculous .938 save percentage with the Boston Bruins. At the time, it was a modern day record. Elliott eclipsed this mark the very next season as mentioned earlier. Boston went on to win the Stanley Cup with Thomas being named playoff MVP.
The next best save percentage by a 36-year-old goalie was Patrick Roy in 2001-02 at .925. Fleury’s current save percentage of .935 has him in the mix to potentially post one of the best save percentages ever by a goalie his age.
Mike Smith: 38 years old
The oldest of the bunch has the best save percentage of the group at .938. In nine games this season, Smith has saved his team an average of a goal every two games, which ranks seventh in the NHL.
Smith’s save percentage has hovered around .900 the past two seasons split between Calgary and Edmonton, but his start to this season is reminiscent of his play when he was with the Coyotes in the early-to-mid 2000s. Smith has a history of running hot and cold so we’ll see how long he can sustain his current level of play.
His current save percentage of .938 would be the best ever posted by a 38-year-old goalie with a little wiggle room at the top as well. Only 19 goalies have ever played 20 or more games in their age 38 season. Roberto Luongo posted the best save percentage of the bunch at .929 in 35 games during the 2017-18 season.
Perhaps these three elder statesmen have benefitted from more time off than usual in the past year. Perhaps less practice time has provided additional rest, or perhaps this will all amount to a small sample size of hot play that will normalize over the course of the season.
What we do know is that Elliott, Fleury and Smith have seemingly found the fountain of youth early in the season and each has an opportunity to put up some all-time numbers in their respective age groups.