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The Curious Case of Marc Andre Fleury

Out with the old and in with the ... wait ... thats out with the young and in with the old.

By all accounts, from his team mates to his coaches to the members of the community who have come into contact with him, Marc Andre Fleury is a great guy. Apparently he is a very strong, positive locker room presence and, as reports have it, he and Sidney Crosby are close personal friends. Drafted first overall by the Penguins in 2003, only the third goalie to ever be selected first overall, Fleury has never quite reached the lofty pinnacle which might be expected from such high regard in the draft. Of the other two goalies selected with the coveted first overall pick, one will be remembered only by hockey history buffs and the other has become something of a cautionary tale. Montreal selected Michel Plasse with their first overall pick in 1968 and the New York Islanders selected Rick Dipietro with theirs in 2000. Fleury, it seems, is in, if not good, then similar company.

Just the Stats, Ma'am

None of the three performed to expectation although two of them, Plasse and Fleury, have their name on the Stanley Cup. DiPietro is not likely to ever have his name ever mentioned in conjunction with the Stanley Cup. Plasse was not a factor but was on the roster and played 17 disappointing games in Montreal in their cup winning season of 1973 with a 2.58 goals against while Fleury was the starting goaltender for Pittsburgh in their cup win of 2009 with a 2.67 goals against average. Rick Dipietro's stats read more like a Junior B back-up goalie.

Fleury's, truthfully, are not a lot better. Even in the year the Penguins won the cup, his regular season save percentage was only .912 and his playoff percentage .908. The team they beat, the Detroit Redwings, had Chris Osgood in net that year and his playoff save percentage was .926 while his regular season percentage was .887. This is a microcosm of the entire "Fleury Problem". While his regular season performance is acceptable, if not great, he gets worse in the playoffs. Osgood, that year and every other year he played, got better in the playoffs. Fleury has only cracked .920 once in his NHL regular season career, in 2008, the year before the Pens won the cup. That year also marks the only time he broke .930 in the playoffs with a very respectable .933.

It has been, as they say, all downhill from there. It's hard to credit it, really. He stands on his head and the Pens lose to Detroit. He was better than Osgood in the playoffs (Osgood posted a .930 the year Detroit won to Fleury's .933) and then that soft goal in game six happened. It was a heartbreaking moment for Pittsburgh and Fleury, to be sure.  Even if his confidence had been damaged, the Stanley Cup win of the next year should have fixed that, even if there were souls whispering that the Pens had won despite Fleury's less than spectacular performance of .908. Easy enough, one presumes, to sluff that off when you're carrying the cup around your hometown.

I had seen Fleury play several times when he was a member of the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles (QMJHL) in the early 2000s and, frankly, he never impressed me as anything special, beyond the brighter than bright smile and the clearly winning personality. He was not even a standout on the Eagles except in his final year (2003), to be frank, and his winning the Mike Bossy trophy and the Telus Cup always felt strange. His save percentage in his only really good year was, ironically, .933, with the other years littered with low 9s and high 8s, much like his NHL career. When he was selected first overall I raised an eyebrow and shrugged my shoulder and wondered that the heck the Penguins were thinking. Sure, he's athletic and agile and has a tremendous ability to move around the crease but he was always weak on anything approaching a peripheral shot and forget anything being played on the board side of the goal line.

Just for a little context, Eric Staal, Nathan Horton, Thomas Vanek, Dustin Brown, Zach Parise, Ryan Suter, Ryan Getzlaf and Dion Phaneuf were all part of the same draft class.

By the time Fleury was a regular part of the Penguins in 2005, Crosby was already on board and by 2008 Malkin was playing - they had already migrated from a down-trodden team who won first pick draft lotteries and were morphing into the run and gun, offensive powerhouse they are today.

The truth is, despite the great affection Pens have for him and all the others who were part of the Stanley Cup winning team in 2009, Marc Andre Fleury has never been a great goalie. He has been a good one, sometimes a nearly-great one, but he has never truly transcended the murky line between good and great and has never once fallen into the brilliant category save for the 2008 playoffs in which he flirted with it very seriously. He has had exactly one great year in each of the junior and NHL segments of his hockey career.

Everyone is waiting for him to "get back to form". Fans run the gamut from believing that he has greatness in him which is yet untapped to believing that he is great and is just having a bad run of ... I don't know ... luck, I guess. The thing is ... this IS Fleury's form. His .916 this last year was his best regular season performance since 2008. This year's playoff performance of .883 was down from last year's .884 which was down from the previous year's .889 which was down from the .891 of 2010 which was down from his cup winning year of .908. It's not an aberration, it's a trend with enough statistical data to make it legitimate. He is getting worse, to be blunt. Much worse and they might as well get Crosby's little sister to stand in goal.

Fleury's back up, Tomas Vokoun, has MUCH better numbers. In fact, Tomas Vokoun is a much better goal tender. Even through his years in Nashville the worst he posted was a regular season .903. There are no useful playoff stats to use because ... well, it was Nashville. Vokoun took advantage of the time off in 2005 to win a world championship for the Czechs with a .927 over 27 games and helping the HIFK Helsinki over 19 games with a .940. Now, those are great stats. He posted a .933 this last year during the playoffs which was better than the Stanley Cup winner, Corey Crawford, who posted a .932 and only a fractional point under Johnathon Quick and Henrik Lundqvist who each posted a .934. Only Rask was better at .940.

On the surface, it is quite befuddling, I must say, that the Penguins are sticking so adamantly to their guns in regards to Fleury. I can only surmise that the tactical game being played is one beyond numbers and even beyond Fleury himself. It's like a modified page from Sun Tzu's Art of War. Namely that a war, if it must be fought, should be done quickly and decisively to avoid an economic and morale disaster. They're trying to keep the state (the team) intact.

Which makes sense.

In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity

All that boring statistical stuff aside, it's a rare glimpse into the art of management, Shero style. Hockey teams tend to have more visceral, knee jerk reactions to bad seasons or bad performances. Shero has made a deliberate point of not doing that, from his immediate endorsement of Bylsma after the 2013 ECF which was a staggering loss by way of sweep to the Bruins, to his apparent complicity in Bylsma's endorsement of Fleury, two events which happened so closely together as to appear orchestrated.

The thing is, of course, is that the Pens' performance in the ECF had nothing to do with goal tending and happened despite the stellar goal tending of Vokoun. Bylsma made the comment that Vokoun's effort was "one goal short of brilliant" which was misleading in the extreme. He ought to have said that the Pens' performance was only two goals short of complete impotence. Which brings us back to Sun Tzu, of course. Saying that would have been demoralizing to the team. A team that management had no intention of changing in any significant way from this year to next. And therein lies the crux, I believe.

There's a war brewing, make no mistake, but right now the chaos that precedes it is a time of opportunity. One Shero hopes to capitalize upon. Clever man, that Shero. Sun Tzu would approve.

Let's work the argument off the following statements:

  1. Fleury has limited to no value on the trade market
  2. There was no starter quality goalie to be had in the free agency or trade market that could be afforded in the cap space the Pens had available or with the players and prospects they were willing to give up
  3. Vokoun, even at the age of 37, can be counted on for one more year of good enough shared regular season play, possibly even one more season of good enough playoff performance
  4. At his best form, Fleury is good enough to backstop the Pens, even to a Stanley Cup
  5. It's not a genuine problem until next year's playoffs as either Fleury or Vokoun should be good enough to get them to the threshold, at least and much can be done over the course of a season

If these things are all true, and I believe they are, then the smartest thing to do is to keep Fleury, get him some psychological counselling and a new goalie coach. Buying him out will be cheaper by $5 million dollars next year and Fleury has proven his ability to be good enough to get them to the playoffs. So, from an economic perspective, keeping him on the team for next year has no downside. Making the last ditch effort, more than other teams might do, to help him regain his form is a clear and positive message to the rest of the team. If we believe in you, then we believe in you and will do so until the very last second. That's the opportunity part of the chaos.

Sun Tzu says that "There is no instance of a country having benefited from prolonged warfare" which seems true enough. Look at the Vancouver Canucks who encouraged, if not outright warfare, a certain sort of ongoing battle. The result might still be precarious, no one seems to know how Luongo is going to feel or perform after the up, down and all around events of the past few years. Whatever Shero may be planning, whatever strategy he is developing, will unfold in the fullness of time and not before. He will pull the plug if he needs to, I have no doubt, but he will not pull it until just before the point of critical mass has been reached ... when saving the one soldier risks the entire army. At this point, it's only Fleury who is at risk and the strategy seems designed to make sure the army is not only safe, but a willing partner in the attempted repair.

The damage to this year's run has already happened and cannot be undone. The time for punitive measures is over and what measures could have been taken, were taken. The man had to make the skate of shame. Again. This time he didn't get to come back except as a back up and that was another disaster. Nothing Shero or Bylsma or even Crosby could say to him will quiet the demons in Fleury's head. He will have to exorcise them himself.

Fleury might well be on his last legs with Pittsburgh. But instead of ensuring failure by making sure everyone knows this, they are hoping for success by giving him every opportunity to avoid the ultimate skate of shame that a buy out would represent. They are hoping to avoid the self-fulfilling prophecy that is boiling on the stove by turning down the heat. After all, the ultimate takeaway from The Art of War is the most commonly quoted, in various permutations: "The greatest victory is that which requires no battle".

One may know how to conquer without being able to do it

There are perils, of course, to taking the high road. If Fleury becomes so stressed by his situation and plays weakly, the team will suffer - his lack of confidence will spread out to the defense which will infect the offense. In their effort to help Fleury regain his composure they might tend to become overprotective or, worse, not take so many chances. The Pens game, more than most teams' games, relies on risk taking, especially in the transition area; the defensive zone.

As an offense first team who count on scoring more goals than their opponent as opposed to letting fewer in (seems a ridiculous distinction, but its not) they do not require a Quick in net to give them a chance to win a game. Their strategy, since the beginning of the Crosby era, is the same as it was in the Lemieux era - when they're down, they open up, they don't tighten up. When they have a lead, they don't protect it, they try and enlarge it. They don't work primarily on stopping goals, they work primarily on getting them.

A team such as Boston needs a goalie like Quick or Rask. They rely on not letting many goals in and only requiring their scorers to come up big, one, two or three times every game. Their offensive forays are almost always the result of their own defense being so effective that odd man rushes, turnovers and missed rebounds/controlled rebounds create most of their scoring chances, they are much less orchestrated in transition than the Pens. The Bruins rarely set up offense, they take advantage of offensive failures (brought about by their skilled defense) for a large majority of their goals. The Pens, on the other hand, like to organize offense, Letang and his blue line brethren tend to slow down the play and let the offense rush down the neutral zone before starting the transition maneuver. The danger, in relation to Fleury, is that this style of game can lead to possession loss deep in the defensive zone when playing a forechecking team. The worry is that the Pens will try and adjust their game to compensate for a lack of confidence in their goalie.

If this happens, Shero will have to move quickly. As Sun Tzu might say, "Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt". Shero will not allow Fleury to jeopardize the team's ability to make the playoffs. If Fleury posts a declined performance that affects the team confidence and thus the team's ability to play their game, I suspect Shero will waste no time in taking steps to create a void and then fill it. Vokoun may be too old to play an 82 game schedule and Shero won't lay him or the team on the Fleury alter. I would stake all my hockey cards on it. And I have a lot of hockey cards. Some other goalie who can reach a nominal .900+ will be brought in and while there is no glut of .930+ goalies, there is no shortage of .900+ goalies on the market. The Pens have plenty of trade-able assets and the cap room Fleury's departure would free up is plenty for a .900 goalie.

The real question begging an answer is whether the situation is terminal or will remedial measures help? Can Fleury gain enough of his form to be acceptable to the Penguins as a long term franchise player? Vokoun is an option only for one more season. I do not believe Fleury is ever going to shake the Brodeur or Roy tree, he is never going to be the guy who steals games or series, but I do believe the team in front of him is strong enough to demand only that he not lose any games for them. But can he do it? It won't be enough for him to play as well as last year, he must show a marked improvement in order to offset the team's loss of confidence. He always plays well enough in the regular season and falls apart in the playoffs and in order to prove he is "fixed" he will need to have a better than usual regular season.

He's going to be seeing a sports psychologist, it has been reported. They have hired a new goalie coach and they have publicly endorsed him.  They have brought familiar-to-Fleury stay at home defenseman Rob Scuderi back to the fold. They have done all they can do. I cannot begin to imagine what set of complex psychological conditions exist and therefore I can have no informed opinion on whether they're fixable. Or if they're even psychological. Perhaps Marc Andre Fleury just can't handle the pace and pressure (of the shots on goal kind, not the psychological kind) that the playoffs bring. Maybe it's not in his head, but in his body. Maybe he just isn't fast moving or fast thinking enough. Maybe he's just not Grade-A, but Grade-B. My personal opinion is that Fleury's form is what it is, that it is what the stats indicate. That his caliber is not quite high enough for the physical and athletic intensity required in playoff hockey. That he will never rise above the low .900s. That he will, indeed, lose some games for them. That he will never be a playoff goalie.

In a rare admission, I'd like to be wrong.

But if I was the General Manager of the Penguins I think I would have done the same thing. After I'd had my private moment of meltdown, teeth gnashing and wanting a head to roll, of course. Personal opinion aside, I think I would have weighed out all the circumstances and concluded what Shero did ... that Fleury should have this one last chance. That it was best for Fleury, the team and the organization. I am hoping that Shero is also doing the other thing I would have done: building a contingency plan in case Fleury is not redeemable.

One thing is for certain, it's boom or bust for Fleury. My mind tells me bust and my heart hopes for boom. I like Fleury. I like his attitude and his willingness to be a cheerleader even when the bench must feel like a million live splinters in his ass. I like his demeanor and his obvious good humor. I like his willingness to work hard. I just like Stanley Cups more. Sorry, Flower.

And speaking of sorry, this was written, in part, in two airports, a taxi, the lobby of a hotel and another taxi. Even for me, it's rambling. Apologies.