Based on the reaction around the hockey world yesterday, the Pittsburgh Penguins handed a 4-year contract extension to a pile of rancid garbage that manifested itself into a professional goaltender and promptly gave up a billion goals to the Flyers in a playoff series this one time.
I don’t think Marc-Andre Fleury's contract was a mistake. I don’t think it’s a gamble. I think it’s an obviously, safe, conservative move by a team that feels its goaltender isn’t the thing that makes or breaks a championship campaign – and that going in a different direction might actually hurt more than help their chances.
This isn’t to say Fleury’s great, because he’s not. Or that he’s without flaws, because he isn’t. Or that we’re all not waiting for that FLOLeury moment in his next playoff series when he handles the puck like a rower whose oar was stuck in a bed of tangled seaweed, because we are, and we’ll see it.
This is to say that the 4-year, $23-million extension handed to Fleury, beginning in 2015-16, is a good investment that maintains the Penguins as an elite team with a perfectly average goalie.
Here are six seasons to actually like this deal:
Marc-Andre Fleury Is A Starting Goalie, And This Is A Bargain
Hey, if the venerable Bob McKenzie says it’s a bargain, it’s a bargain.
As of now, there are 12 goalies with a higher cap hit than Fleury in 2015-16. He’s younger than five of them. His contract runs shorter than all of them save for Ben Bishop (2 years) and Ryan Miller (3 years).
He’s second in games-played from 2008-2014, behind only Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers. That’s on a Penguins team that’s seen massive man-games lost to injury, including injuries to star players like Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang.
Ask GM Jim Rutherford what life is like when you can’t keep your starter healthy…
One of the reasons the Penguins have been a well-oiled machine in the regular season is because Fleury has been a constant.
And, let’s face it, constantly average.
Sometimes Average Can Be Satisfying
Ever been to a Ruby Tuesday’s?
It’s better than TGI Fridays, maybe not as good as Chili’s. You know what you’re getting, and how you’re getting it, and it rarely wavers in quality. Occasionally, they’ll toss some crazy new item or seasonal special on the menu, and you’re like, “Wow, a buffalo burger with blue cheese. Neat.” Those are truly special days.
In the regular season, Marc-Andre Fleury is the Ruby Tuesday’s of the NHL. Readily available, solid but rarely spectacular, and not as good as a dozen other places in town. But affordable!
To wit: Goals Saved Above Average.
This is a stat available on Hockey-Reference.com that tracks how a goaltender fares within the context of the league average. From Greg Balloch of IN GOAL Magazine:
There is a relatively new statistic for hockey that has been made available by the folks at Hockey-Reference. It’s similar to baseball’s WAR, and it is called “GSAA” – Goals Saved Above Average. You take the league’s average save percentage and apply it to the amount of shots a particular goalie has faced. You get a number of goals that the average goalie in that league would have surrendered if they faced the same number of shots as the goaltender in question. That number gets compared to the number of goals surrendered by that goaltender, and a plus/minus is created. If a goalie is in the positive, that is how many goals they have saved compared to a league-average goalie. If they are in the negative, then it is safe to assume that they are performing worse than how a league-average goaltender would perform in the same situation.
Here’s the GSAA for Fleury for the last five seasons. The middle column is shots against overall.
You can break it down further to GSAA/60 minutes, but the point here is to illustrate that, for the most part, Fleury is a completely average goalie. In fact, his GSAA is likely only above average due to sample size, playing more games than the average netminder in the NHL.
His adjusted save percentage – a War On Ice stat that tracks “a goalie’s save percentage if they faced a league average proportion of shots from each of the three shooting zones (high, medium, and low probability of success)” finds Fleury with a .9183 Even Strength AdjustedSvPct (124 games) from 2012-14, putting him the same neighborhood as Antti Niemi (.9193, 133 games) and Ryan Mlller (115 games, .9201). For comparison’s sake, Lundqvist was the NHL’s best in the category at .9339 in 152 games.
Fleury’s even-strength save percentage last season was .917; it was .915 in 2011-12 and .925 in 2010-11. Serviceable, nothing disastrous.
As you can see in this oft-circulated stat, Fleury’s overall save percentage ranks him 19th among 26 goalies that have played 200 or more games since 2009. This would make him a top 20 goalie over the last five years, despite not having the benefit of some of his peers’ defensive systems in front of him. (Sidney don’t trap, you guys.)
The best that can be said about him in the regular season is that he plays a lot of games and is a competent goalie. Right with Ilya Bryzgalov, Cam Ward and Corey Crawford, who might be the best example of a competent average goalie backstopping a winning team.
In the playoffs, however, Crawford can be very good while Fleury… well, has not been.
Two Catastrophic Playoffs Don’t Cement Him As a Choker
Look, there’s no question that Fleury was the reason the Penguins lost to the Philadelphia Flyers in 2011-12 (4.63 GAA, .834 save percentage) and he had the yips again in 2012-13 (3.52 GAA, .883 SV%) before ceding the crease to Tomas Vokoun.
He wasn’t perfect last postseason, but he had a significant bounce-back with a .915 save percentage overall and a .931 even strength save percentage in 13 games.
So at the very least Fleury deserves the benefit of the doubt that his two years in postseason hell were a stretch that won’t be repeated. At the very least, he’s moved from “completely liability” to “unable to steal more than a game, if that.”
Because here’s the thing with Marc-Andre Fleury: He may have finally figured this goaltending thing out, thanks to some new advice.
Hopefully Mike Bales Gets A Cut
When Dan Bylsma was turfed after last season, his assistant coaches were as well. One that wasn’t: Mike Bales, the Penguins’ goaltending coach, despite having only been in that role for one season. (He was a goalie development coach for two years before that.)
Why? Because he’s made a difference with Fleury, as Seth Rorabaugh points out:
The Penguins' goaltending coach had the audacity of making Fleury a better player last season. Bales took over the position from Gilles Meloche and has resurrected Fleury's career after it went into melt-down mode. In addition to just maturing as a human being, Fleury took full advantage of Bales' tutelage and rebounded with a stronger performance in the postseason last spring.
Under Meloche, Fleury relied almost strictly on his naturally gifted quickness and reflexes. Bales has fine-tuned the technical aspects of Fleury's skillset, including his ability to handle the puck, an area Fleury is still lacking in.
Taking a gifted athlete between the pipes and turning him into a more technically sound goalie is something that the right coach can do in this League. It happened last season with Semyon Varlamov; and while it didn’t receive the same fanfare, it also happened with Marc-Andre Fleury.
Why Create A Problem You Don’t Have?
Please recall that list of 18 goalies with a better save percentage than Marc-Andre Fleury since 2009.
You’ll notice a whole bunch of guys that aren’t available. Under long-term deals, or simply untouchable. You’ll notice some names that might have been options or could still be, like Jonas Hiller (replaced by two rookies last postseason) or Kari Lehtonen (F-R-A-G-I-L-E) and Niemi (about to be usurped by Alex Stalock).
Which is to say that an alternative to Fleury boils down to three options for the Penguins, had they chosen not to re-sign him:
1. Acquiring what amounts to a lateral move, with an unknown quantity.
2. Dabbling in a crap-tastic free agent pool next summer.
3. Acquiring someone’s understudy, a la Ben Bishop with the Lightning, in the hopes of finding a diamond in the rough because the Penguins have nothing in the pipeline that’ll be ready by the time Fleury’s deal is up.
Are any of those satisfactory for a team that’s still sitting in a window of opportunity to win the Cup?
Keeping Fleury was the best option. But if it wasn’t …
And If It Doesn’t Work, Cut Bait
There’s some concern that signing Fleury before this postseason, under his current deal, makes no sense. Obviously the Penguins felt it was vital to his success in the postseason to give him piece of mind now, but the skepticism is understandable.
The bottom line is that his contract is cheap and short enough to be mobile, and his no-move clause has some flexibility; and the fact is that is the crap his the oscillator again for Fleury, he’ll probably agree to go anywhere anyway.
The Penguins have given Fleury a vote of confidence, but by no means are they shackled to him with this contact. Rutherford’s seen what happens when you give a goalie an elephantine salary and an immovable contract. And that’s why Cam Ward is still in Carolina.
Fleury’s not a star. He can’t be counted among those goalies that carry his teams on his back. But he’s also not the liability he’s been made out to be. He’s just a steady hand at the wheel.
He’s a better goalie, for example, than Chris Osgood was for the Detroit Red Wings. The difference is that Osgood never had to two apocalyptic playoff meltdowns and had Nicklas Lidstrom in front of him instead of Brooks Oprik.
But he’s clutch where Fleury’s been mediocre, and let’s face it: The only way critics of this sound investment from the Penguins are going to be turned is if Fleury doesn’t bungle away another playoff series in the five postseasons.
And if he adds another ring? Then the conversation completely changes.
MORE NHL ON YAHOO SPORTS