by PuckStopsHere on 10/07/10 at 03:51 AM ET
Marc-Andre Fleury won the Stanley Cup as the Pittsburgh Penguins starting goalie in 2009. He was named to the 2010 Canadian Olympic Team (though he did not get any playing time). Fleury was the first pick overall in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft. The upcoming season will be his seventh in the NHL. In light of the Stanley Cup and Olympic credentials, many people assume that Fleury has lived up to his expectations that existed when he first hit the NHL. I disagree with this point.
In my Atlantic Division preview, I said In goal, the Penguins will play Marc-Andre Fleury most nights. This former first overall draft pick has been unable to live up to his potential. He turns 26 this year and is running out of chances, but a big year is still not entirely impossible.
I would not argue the Marc-Andre Fleury sucks. He should be a starting goalie in a 30 team NHL, but he isn’t one of the best goalies in the NHL. Fleury has never been a serious Vezina Trophy candidate. In most of the seasons in his career, Fleury’s saves percentage has been at or below the NHL average. The notable exception is the 2007/08 season when Fleury put up a .921 saves percentage. Even when winning the Stanley Cup, Fleury only put up a .908 saves percentage. That is the lowest saves percentage of any Stanley Cup winning goalie since the mid-1990’s dramatic league-wide jump in saves percentages that ushered in the “dead puck” era.
Pittsburgh’s Stanley Cup was won in spite of Fleury’s goaltending. He didn’t steal games for the Penguins and often allowed more goals than he should have. People often argue that Fleury knows how to make the big save when he needs to in order to keep his team in the game, citing his team’s Stanley Cup as evidence. I am not one to believe in the concept of a “big save”. Every save is a big save, in that every save that isn’t made is a goal against, which is worth the same number of goals against regardless of when it occurs in a game. The argument claims that Fleury may “fall asleep” and allow a goal when Pittsburgh is sufficiently far ahead that it doesn’t matter, but when the game is on the line he makes the save. If Fleury has such an ability, one has to wonder where it went in the 2010 playoffs when Pittsburgh had a 2 game to 1 and 3 game to 2 lead against the Montreal Canadiens and still managed to lose the playoff series. There were plenty of big saves that Fleury did not make, if big saves exist as anything more than a myth to explain gut feelings that clash with reality.
I think the better model is that Fleury is not one of the better starting goalies in the NHL. He is good enough to be a starter, but not a top one. That is true in the playoffs and in the regular season. That is true in big games and smaller ones. That is true for big saves and smaller ones. Sure sometimes, Fleury has a hot streak or a slump, where he doesn’t perform at his usual level, but his usual level is not that of a spectacular goalie.
Fleury was selected to the 2010 Canadian Olympic Team. Is this a sign that he is well respected in the NHL? It isn’t as obvious that it is as one might think at first. There were two obvious choices as goalies for the Canadian Team in Martin Brodeur and Roberto Luongo. The third goalie was a distant third. Fleury’s Stanley Cup win propelled him into the position because it seemed like as good a credential as any other potential Canadian goalie could offer. The team success of the Penguins gave Fleury an individual chance that he didn’t really deserve.
In the comments of the Pensblog post, I made the point that Fleury had the 31st best goaltending portion in the goals versus threshold system in the 2009/10 season. Hence if talent was perfectly distributed in the 30 team NHL, he shouldn’t have been a starter last season. That is a harsh statement, but it doesn’t contradict my statement that I think Fleury really should be an NHL starter. The margin between goalies in the goals versus threshold system is small when you get to 31st place in the rankings. A goalie may have done marginally better than Fleury last season in that system, but be unlikely to be able to repeat such a standing in the future. For example, one goalie ranked ahead of Fleury last year in the GVT system is Mike Brodeur of the Ottawa Senators. He only played three NHL games, but put up a remarkable .966 saves percentage. That is clearly an unsustainable number, especially given Brodeur’s .899 saves percentage he put up in the AHL that season. Brodeur didn’t make the Ottawa team out of training camp this year and will almost certainly not be as strong a goalie as Fleury next season. There are some other cases of goalies who ranked ahead of Fleury in the GVT system last year, but none quite as obvious as Mike Brodeur.
Marc-Andre Fleury has not lived up to his first overall selection in the 2003 draft. He isn’t the star goalie one might have expected him to be. He is a useable starter who clearly can win on a dominant team (all useable starters can win on dominant teams). There is a bit of a myth that has grown up around him because he was the starting goalie for a team that won the Stanley Cup. However we should know by now that you don’t have to be a superstar goalie to win the Stanley Cup. We watched Antti Niemi do it last year. Niemi is no superstar goalie. However, Niemi put up a better saves percentage than Fleury last year in both the regular season and in the playoffs. If Niemi is no superstar and he posts better numbers than Fleury, what does that make Fleury?
Pittsburgh has a shot at the Stanley Cup as long as they have a strong core lead by Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. I think that if Fleury has a significant failure this year, the Penguins will start to look elsewhere for their starter. They don’t want to waste their window as a serious Stanley Cup contender with a weaker than necessary starting goalie. If the option exists, Marc-Andre Fleury could find himself replaced in Pittsburgh after another subpar season. It is not uncommon for goalies who consistently put up better saves percentage numbers than Fleury to come available. Pittsburgh might bite on one of them unless Fleury has a better season this year than he did last year.
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