You Couldn't BE More Wrong About: Marc-Andre Fleury by @griffTHW and @BrianK_PI - PensInitiative | Pittsburgh Penguins Blog | Rumors | News

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Thursday, October 2, 2014

You Couldn't BE More Wrong About: Marc-Andre Fleury by @griffTHW and @BrianK_PI


As the storylines of the 2013-'14 season unfolded, Brian Keenan and I started to realize we rarely agree on, well, almost anything.  So, it only seemed natural to start arguing over our differing opinions during the 2014-'15 campaign.

With that, "You Couldn't BE More Wrong" was born. Every couple of weeks, we'll debate a topic on which we don't see eye to eye.

So, for our initial debate, we thought we'd discuss Marc-Andre Fleury's future in Pittsburgh. Fire away, Brian.


Brian: Feels like forever ago that he signed that 7 year, $35 million deal, doesn't it? Fleury's stock certainly was high at the time he was extended, having just posted a 1.97 GAA and a 0.933 sv% for the Eastern Conference champs after putting up a 2.33 GAA and 0.921 sv% during an injury-shortened regular season. At 23 years old and with the pedigree of being a former first overall draft pick he seemed on the cusp of developing into a Vezina-caliber goalie, but needless to say things never ended up turning out that way. That 0.921 sv% is still a career high, and the 2.33 GAA was barely eclipsed by the 2.32 GAA he had in 2010-11. His 2.47 GAA and 0.913 sv% in the past six seasons have been roughly around league average, but he's been awful in the postseason with a 2.83 GAA and 0.897 sv%, though he did rebound last season as his 2.40 GAA and 0.915 sv% were more in line with his regular season numbers.

He's been an average goalie over the course of his last contract, and his $5 million cap hit is the 15th largest in the league this year, so he's currently getting paid like an average goalie as well. But is he worth bringing back at that high of a cap hit, even if it has become league average?

Sean: Not long ago, many felt Kris Letang's cap hit served as an albatross for the Penguins but, now, the tide seems to be turning on that sentiment in many circles.  Could the same happen for Marc-Andre Fleury?

Time will tell but for now, let's just say Fleury is worth bringing back .

Now, should the Penguins immediately invest another seven years in the oft-maligned goaltender? Probably not. Nor should that cap hit significantly increase.  But it will prove beneficial for the Pens to extend Fleury beyond the 2014-'15 campaign.

His numbers may not have sparkled last year, but "The Flower" was instrumental in helping a decimated Penguins squad to another division title. Despite playing behind what sometimes resembled more of an AHL club than the Pittsburgh Penguins, Fleury still collected 39 wins. What's more, he seemingly exorcised his playoff demons of the past, arguably serving as Pittsburgh's most consistent performer during the 2014 postseason. Because, in the end, it's tough to lay the blame at a goaltender's feet when the offense dries up, producing only three tallies in the season's final three contests.

That being said, an extension or lack thereof shouldn't come solely as a result of past accomplishments or from Fleury's transformation into a lightning rod for recent postseason failures. No, instead, the decision needs to be made based on whether or not this regime feels Fleury can provide enough in the Pittsburgh crease to make the Pens a consistent threat to compete for the Stanley Cup.

And, in this corner, it says The Flower will turn Jim Rutherford et al into believers this season.

Throw out the fact that the former first overall pick will find himself armed with the motivation to prove himself to a new G.M. in a contract year. Aside from that, if Fleury can put up the "average" numbers you described behind one of the worst bottom-six units in the league and a revolving door on the blue line, doesn't it stand to reason that he could improve upon that this year? 

Yes, there will be a transition period, some growing pains out of the gate until the Pens can adjust to all the new faces and a new system. This team, however, will be more balanced from top to bottom, boasting both a formidable top-four on the backend and the luxury of actually dressing a competitive bottom-six. What's more, that new system will put an emphasis on puck possession while moving away from the consistent stretch passes we witnessed for the last few years. And, as a result, we should see less of the maddening turnovers that can lead to glorious scoring chances against. 

Add it all up and, as the season moves along, life could become a lot less difficult for Fleury between the Pittsburgh pipes.  If that rings true, he might just improve on those average numbers.  So, given the other options that might be available next summer, why would the Penguins ultimately move on from The Flower?

Brian: You've made one of the most maddening arguments in support of a goaltender, because the majority of your reasoning was about the team and how they will be better than last season. Yes, the team will have a more balanced lineup, and the team will be playing a more suitable system, but none of that affects Fleury's abilities as a goaltender. You argue for Fleury by saying he won 39 games last year, yet two sentences later you're saying the last three losses to the Rangers weren't his fault because of the offense. And that's the thing - the Penguins won 39 games last year with Fleury as the goaltender of record, and they lost those last three games with Fleury as the goaltender of record. The Penguins are going to win games regardless of who is in net; they're that talented of a team. Last season the Penguins captured 67.0% of the available points with Fleury; that number was 65.0% with Zatkoff. The year before it was 74.2% with Fleury and 76.5% with Vokoun. The Penguins have had some awful goalies backing up Fleury over the years, but since signing his extension the backup goalies have still gotten 61.5% of the available points. That's the equivalent of a 101 point regular season. And that's with guys like Dany Sabourin, John Curry, Brent Johnson, and Brad Thiessen seeing the ice.

And here's the issue - Jeff Zatkoff was signed to be the goalie in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and was forced into the backup role due to Vokoun's injury. You said Fleury was playing behind what sometimes resembled more of an AHL club, yet Zatkoff IS an AHL goalie playing behind the same team with the same issues and his numbers (2.61 GAA and 0.912 sv%) weren't markedly different from Fleury's (2.37 GAA and 0.915 sv%). And you know what? After struggling horribly in his first two career NHL starts, Zatkoff settled down and posted a 2.34 GAA and 0.922 sv% the rest of the year. Tomas Vokoun was arguably the most underrated goalie coming out of the lockout, but he joined Pittsburgh at 36 years old and put up a very similar season (2.45 GAA and 0.919 sv%) to Marc-Andre Fleury (2.39 GAA and 0.916 sv%) in 2013. It's also worth noting that he elevated his game in the playoffs (2.01 GAA with a 0.933 sv%) to a level Fleury has never reached in his career. Brent Johnson completely fell off in 2011-12, yet the season before he put up a 2.17 GAA and 0.922 sv% vs Fleury's 2.32 GAA and 0.918 sv%, and Brent Johnson was a career backup, and not a very good one at that either.

Jeff Zatkoff's cap hit was $538k. Tomas Vokoun's was $2 million. Brent Johnson's was $600k. Marc-Andre Fleury's is $5 million. Why should the team continue to pay Fleury big money to get marginally better, at best, goaltending than what his backups are capable of? The team enters the regular season incredibly thin on the wing in the top six. They could have brought in a player such as Ales Hemsky or Nikolai Kulemin, but they didn't have the cap space. Thomas Greiss is a guy who has been stuck behind established starters in San Jose and Phoenix yet has played well when given a chance. It wouldn't surprise me in the least if he looks better in Pittsburgh this season than Fleury does. Even if he puts up comparable numbers, why should the team spend much more money on Fleury?

Sean: First off, I think you're missing the crux of the above argument. Fleury's likely to win games no matter what; he's proven that.  He'll make key saves, keep the Pens in games and do what he always does. Changes around him, though, will leave The Flower better positioned to improve upon the average numbers that everyone seemingly bemoans. And, if that happens, his $5 million salary won't look so bad anymore.

Ultimately, though, Fleury may never post truly elite stats but, in the mold of Grant Fuhr (and, no, I'm not comparing the two goaltenders' accomplishments), the Pittsburgh goalie does enough to allow a potent Penguins attack to come out on top more often than not. As a result (and much like in Fuhr's case), the numbers really take a backseat; they're almost irrelevant as long as the team is winning.

Yet, critics look at Fleury's average numbers and see an overpaid goaltender, someone who could easily be replaced by any number of individuals capable of doing the same job for a smaller percentage of Pittsburgh's cap space. 

So, I'm glad you bring up the argument of how Fleury's backups can provide the same quality of goaltending for a cheaper price.  I, in fact, remember reading an article a few weeks ago that may or may not have served as the basis of your argument.  As I read it, I recall remembering just how ridiculous it was so, thankfully, this platform provides me with an opportunity to rebut its absurdity.

On the surface, it seems perfectly logical. Fleury posts similar numbers to several career backups playing behind him, instilling the idea that virtually anyone could find success in the Pittsburgh crease. But, instead of just glossing over some numbers and immediately screaming about how the stats prove Fleury can easily be replaced, let's actually dig a little deeper into a couple of these seasons.

Last year, Jeff Zatkoff appeared in 20 games, posting a 2.61 GAA and .912 sv%.  Fairly adequate numbers for someone with so little NHL experience. But a closer look reveals that six of his 20 games (that's 30%, by the way) came against three of the five worst teams in the league; three more came against squads that didn't qualify for the postseason. Now, I'll grant that means Zatkoff squared off against eventual playoff teams 11 times but, of those, only three were top 10 offenses in the NHL in terms of goal production. Overall, seems a bit sheltered, does it not?

Let's look back further to Brent Johnson's 2010-'11 season. This one's actually even more disparaging! Johnson appeared in 23 games that year, posting a 2.17 GAA and .922 sv%. But seven of those games (coincidently, also 30%) came against, once again, three of the five worst teams in the league. Only six came at the hands of eventual playoff teams. That means an astounding 74% of Johnson's time in the crease came against teams that missed out on the postseason. Not exactly a demanding workload. 

So, sure, you can spin the numbers, making it seem as if Fleury has been nearly equaled in the Pittsburgh crease over the last several campaigns. But a closer look reveals the truth, that The Flower typically does the heavy lifting while his backups serve to provide an occasional breather. More significantly, when Fleury does sit, the Penguins aren't typically squaring off against the NHL's elite. 

That's the real reason the numbers are so close and that's what could prove so damning about just assuming someone else can jump in and shoulder the load at a cheaper cost. Sure, maybe Greiss will be up to the challenge. But, in taking that risk, the Penguins would have to gamble on someone who hasn't proven they can handle the rigors of a full NHL season. Is that really the right move?

After all, the grass isn't always greener.

Brian: Sean I'm not missing the crux of your argument; I'm disregarding its validity in its entirety. Fleury has won games; so have his backups, at a similar rate. Improving the team in front of him will improve his numbers? If the Penguins had Patrick Roy in his prime, improving the team in front of him would improve his numbers. If they were forced to start an average ECHL goalie last season and this season, improving the team in front of him would improve his numbers. That's true for literally any goalie out there and doesn't speak as to whether or not Fleury is worth bringing back. It's not about makings his salary not "look so bad anymore", it's about wisely and efficiently spending cap dollars at the position to bring back the most value to the team.

Let me offer a little piece of advice for you: if you're going to dig a little deeper, make sure what you're accomplishing isn't digging a hole for yourself. Last season Jeff Zatkoff faced teams that averaged 88.5 points on the season and scored 2.71 goals/gm. Marc-Andre Fleury faced teams that averaged 91.5 points on the season and scored 2.73 goals/gm. In fact, Zatkoff faced a more sustained pressure, averaging 29.8 shots faced per 60 minutes vs 28.1 for Fleury! So please tell me again, what's the difference here exactly? We're talking about a career AHL goalie who was only in the NHL on an emergency basis last year; the fact that we're even having this conversation speaks volumes about Marc-Andre Fleury's level of play.

How about 2010-11, when Brent Johnson put up great numbers backing up Fleury? Johnson faced teams that averaged 87.2 points on the season and scored 2.70 goals/gm while Fleury faced teams that averaged 91.3 points on the season and scored 2.78 goals/gm. Johnson faced 27.9 shots per 60 minutes while Fleury faced 28.3 shots per 60 minutes. So are we really going to sit here and say it was the competition that explains the discrepancy between Johnson and Fleury's stats? Nevermind that we're disregarding the fact that Brent Johnson was a journeyman goaltender who wasn't particularly good at playing the position!

With Vokoun backing him up? 2.77 goals/gm and prorated 91.1 points faced by Vokoun, 2.74 goals/gm and prorated 87.9 points faced by Fleury. Vokoun faced 30.3 shots per 60 minutes vs 28.5 for Marc-Andre Fleury. Fleury doesn't have better numbers, he's not facing markedly more difficult competition, and he's being compared to Tomas Vokoun and two not very good goaltenders. Marc-Andre Fleury turns 30 in a month, he'll be 31 at the start of his next contract, and anything past a couple years is likely going to take him well onto the backside of his athletic prowess. It's fairly safe to say by now that Fleury's not going to develop into a technical goaltender, and when his athleticism is gone it's going to take away much of his effectiveness in net.

How far do you have to dig do differentiate Fleury against a couple of well below average goaltenders he's shared the crease with, and at what point do you realize he's not worth the $5 million cap hit he's currently carrying?

Sean: Fine. But you're still only looking at the averages.

Zatkoff may have faced teams that averaged 88.5 points on the season but in his whopping 20 starts, he squared off against only one of the NHL's top-five clubs (San Jose - 5th). A single contest against Tampa (8th) and two against the Kings (10th) provided Pittsburgh's backup with a measly four appearances against the NHL's ten best squads.

So, what about Johnson in 2010-11? A lone game against each of Philadelphia (3rd), Detroit (6th) and Boston (7th) provided the former-backup with only three starts against the NHL's ten best teams. His other 20 games? The competition came courtesy of a whole lot of mediocrity, at best. 

So you can compare averages all you want. But those won't tell you that it's almost always Fleury in net when the Pens face the league's elite. They won't tell you that Pittsburgh's starter plays roughly three times as many games as his understudy in a typical year, that it's anybody's guess as to whether or not Zatkoff, Johnson or any other backup could produce comparable numbers with such a heavy workload.

In the end, neither of us know what the Penguins will ultimately decide with regards to Marc-Andre Fleury's future in Pittsburgh. But, if it were up to me, I'd think long and hard before turning the Pittsburgh crease over to someone else. 

Brian: You don't like the averages showing they played similar levels of competition? Zatkoff's 4 starts against top 10 teams equaled 22.2% of his starts; Fleury had 26.6% of his starts against top 10 teams. Not a big difference. Eight of Zatkoff's starts were against teams 11-20th in the league (44.4%); Fleury had 37.5%. This was a slightly larger difference, and it means that Fleury started against a larger percentage of bottom 10 teams (35.9%) than Zatkoff did (33.4%), albeit not by much.

Point is, yet again, that a guy worthy of a $5 million cap hit shouldn't have this much trouble distinguishing himself from a career AHLer. He shouldn't have a below average career backup come in and post better numbers. The fact that this keeps happening is damning against Marc-Andre Fleury and speaks volumes to the strength of the team in front of him. If Fleury wants to be a cheap stop gap option until Tristian Jarry is ready to take over, something like a 2 year contract for $2-$2.5 million AAV, then it wouldn't be a bad idea. But he's going to want more money and more term and it's not the right move for the Penguins. They'd be better off shoring up their top 6 and becoming an even more talented and difficult team to play against. The long contract Shero signed him to is finally about to end. It's time to stop overpaying for replaceable goaltending.








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