Marc-Andre Fleury is Not the Best, but He is the Best Available Option

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By Ryan Kiray (@RyanK_THG)

The Pittsburgh Penguins announced the extension of goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury through 2019 on Wednesday, cutting off any chance that their franchise goaltender will depart the team when his current deal expires on July 1st. Fleury, 30, was taken first overall in the legendary 2003 entry draft, and has been a mainstay as the Penguins’ starting goaltender for the better part of the last decade. While Fleury has never quite lived up to the promise that came with being the first overall pick in the best draft class in at least the last fifteen years, he has a Stanley Cup championship to his name and a solid track record for regular season performance.

Fleury is one of the most polarizing goaltenders in the league, with opinions on him ranging from obstinate and overly selective commentators proclaiming him an elite goaltender from behind a pair of black and Vegas gold glasses, to self-important know-nothings declaring him the biggest reason for the Penguins’ recent playoff woes. Neither opinion is completely on the mark, although both have bases in fact. The fact of the matter is that Fleury has melted down in the playoffs on more than one occasion, and no amount of regular season success can fully remedy those failings. However, Fleury is a decent, though certainly not elite, starting goaltender, and his $5.75 cap hit reflects that status.

In terms of pure athleticism, few goaltenders in the league right now are Fleury’s equal. That athleticism lends itself to some truly jaw-dropping moments, and nary a month goes by without one of his saves finding its way onto some national highlight reels. However, positioning problems, a penchant for letting in soft goals, and a tendency to overplay the puck has kept Fleury out of the echelons of the league’s elite. Of course, former head coach Dan Bylsma’s stretch pass based offensive system often led to odd man rushes that left Fleury without defensive support, but at the end of the day Fleury’s bed is largely of his own making. At age 30, that cannot be expected to change.

Those shortcomings, in addition to myriad front office and coaching failings, have cost the Penguins a run at the Cup in the last few years, and one is forced to wonder how wide the window is actually open for Pittsburgh right now. Many will view those failings as a symptom of goaltending alone and decry the four-year, $23 million deal that the Penguins gave to Fleury. Certainly, Fleury’s improvement this year cannot be viewed in a vacuum, and the seasons that preceded it must be considered alongside it. Given his past inconsistencies, a few weeks on a hot streak is not unexpected and is not enough to decide that four more years of Fleury is prudent. All of that said, the risk is one that the Penguins were forced to take.

Fleury may not be the second coming of Patrick Roy, but he is a solid starter. His numbers are generally on the lower end of the middle of the pack, but if the system around him did not evaporate every time a puck entered the defensive zone, he would have posted perfectly average stats. His postseason issues are a huge problem, but it was not so long ago that he was stonewalling Nicklas Lidstrom in the waning moments of a Game 7 on the road in the Stanley Cup Finals. For the record, the thinking here is that that season was the anomaly, his more recent performances the rule. That more than anything should be the biggest source of pause in giving Fleury four years. In the end, however, Fleury has given the Penguins a chance to win as often as he has cost them one. Together with his solid-if-unspectacular numbers, the conclusion that those facts lead to is readily apparent: Fleury is an average starter that does average things.

Barring an earth-shattering trade, Pittsburgh is not going to do any better than that. Teams do not simply go out onto the free agent market, sign a goaltender, and win the Cup. Of the teams that have won the Cup in the last ten seasons, nine of the winning goaltenders had spent all of their significant time as a starter to that point with the same franchise, and the tenth was Chris Osgood. Successful teams make trades for young goaltenders and develop them, or raise a goaltender from the AHL. The reason for this is pretty simple-the goaltender is the most important position on the ice, and the truly elite ones are in high demand and rarely move. The Penguins do not have a long window to wait for a goaltender to develop, and there are no game-changing goaltenders going to free agency next season. None in 2016 either. You can bet that Ben Bishop is not going to be allowed to walk away without a fight from Tampa Bay in 2017. The Penguins are not going to just go out and sign a better goaltender. Cap strapped to the max and already with holes to fill, they will have a very difficult time amassing the assets required to wrest one away in trade, even on the off chance one were available. Bottom line, Pittsburgh has as good as they are going to get. With the asking price right, they really did not have a choice here.

Smarter hockey men than myself have already pointed out that Fleury is an average goaltender getting average money. Fleury’s salary is 15th in the league among starting goaltenders, which considering his track record is about right. One must be careful not to cherry pick bad contracts in making comparisons, but what have Kari Lehtonen or Jimmy Howard proven that Fleury hasn’t? Neither of those goaltenders are bad, but certainly neither are even arguably close to elite. They are, for all intents and purposes, on a level with Fleury, in reality if not in raw ability. Fleury stacks up pretty closely to those options in both pay and performance. Pittsburgh had the opportunity to sign Fleury to a deal commensurate with his abilities. They were able to make the numbers work, and did not have the option to try for anything better. From that point of view, not signing him would have been a mistake. There is still potential for this contract to seriously backfire in the form of five more postseason choke jobs, but at the end of the day, it was the lowest risk available. Fleury is not the goaltender that the Penguins deserve, but he is the one that they need right now.

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