Could a Game 7 loss mean the end for Fleury?

We always hear certain kinds of players referred to as “enigmatic.” It is usually one-dimensional goal scorers from some country other than Canada or America. But perhaps the most enigmatic player remaining in the Stanley Cup Playoffs is Pittsburgh Penguins’ goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. He is brilliant at times with amazing athleticism, yet has head-scratching lapses. He has won the Cup, he has lost series’ on his own. He has had shutouts, he has given up inexplicable goals.

In an analytics world where we like to make determinations based on history and stick to them (see: possession, puck), Fleury offers a puzzle that is near impossible to solve with numbers, anecdotes, visual evidence et al. The former first-overall pick – that’s part of the puzzle – set the league ablaze with an incredible 2007-08 playoff run that saw three shutouts and a .933 save percentage in 20 postseason games. This following up a .921 save percentage regular season. It appeared that he had finally turned the corner and would be a centerpiece in the Peguins’ ultimate rebuild job, setting them up for years and years of success.

Well, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin set them up for years of success, but Fleury has facilitated their stardom and taken away from it. He followed up the brilliant ’08 playoffs by raising the Stanley Cup. His save percentage was a mediocre .908, but it was easy to overlook. Winning the Cup as a goaltender earns you a lifetime’s worth of credit with the media; it does not mean you will be good for a lifetime. Fleury followed up the Cup victory with playoff save percentages of .891, .899, .834 and .883. Considering the NHL average is somewhere around .910, that’s an incredibly abysmal record over a decent sample of playoff hockey. The low point came last season when coach Dan Bylsma benched him for Tomas Vokoun, who played at an extremely high level in leading Pittsburgh to the Conference Final.

This year has been a little of both words. Two shutouts against the New York Rangers were enough to have people asking, “is he back?”  Maybe all Fleury needed was the confidence of his coach, a larger sample and whatever sports psychologist he’s seeing. Just as quickly as it appeared he had made it through all the dark postseason days, the Penguins lost two games in a row and Fleury gave up seven goals. Back to being an enigma.

Game 7 is a crossroads for Fleury and the Penguins. They elected not to buy him out after last post-season’s debacle, giving him chance No. 1,634. If the Penguins lose the final game against the New York Rangers, it is hard to see how they could justify keeping their “franchise” goalie.

Because he won the Cup, the Penguins have long ignored that Fleury has been mediocre during the regular season. As league save percentages have risen to .913 this year, his numbers have not improved. In fact, he has never matched the .921 save percentage of 2007-08 again and dipped as low as .905 in 2009-10. Fleury’s .916 save percentage this season was good enough to keep the Penguins at the top of the standings, but was far from putting him amongst the league’s best, which often roam in the .925-.930 area.

A Game 7 loss could finally move the Pens beyond their fear of the unknown. The reality about goaltenders is that they are difficult to predict. Last year, Montreal netminder Carey Price was a mess, this year he won the Gold medal and was amongst the league’s best in save percentage. Semyon Varlamov was a bust last season, now he’s a Vezina Trophy candidate. Sergei Bobrovsky was chased from Philadelphia, only to become a Vezina winner last year. Steve Mason went from below average to a No. 1 with the Flyers. It works the opposite way, too. Just ask goalies like Christobal Huet or Ilya Bryzgalov.

So just when you think you have found the next top goalie, the future of your franchise, the carpet can be pulled out from underneath. It is understandable that the Penguins preferred the devil they knew for so long.

Fleury’s contract has also played a role. It would have been difficult to eat a $5 million cap hit. This year, that’s different. This off-season will make the last opportunity to use a compliance buyout, allowing the Penguins to get out of the deal without the hit.

The decision probably has not been made yet. From a stats perspective, it seems nutty to let one game determine such an important decision – but that is how it works sometimes. There has to be a breaking point. A loss that allows the move to look justifiable to ownership and to fans. There is more to the story than simple numbers and economics. In Fleury’s case, a Game 7 loss would make the decision easily justifiable to all parties.

It is also a good year to be in the market for a goalie. Ryan Miller and Jaroslav Halak are free agents, James Reimer may be on the trading block – there are options.

What if he wins? Then there will be another crossroads soon. And another after that.

If he passes those tests, we’ll believe we have him figured out. And he will probably prove us wrong again.

 

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