Sober Second Thoughts; Fleury’s New Contract

We’ve all had a fair amount of time to digest the contract extension the Pittsburgh Penguins signed Marc-Andre Fleury to last week. Reactions are varied and by large very polarized. Depending upon which side of the fence you lay claim to, he’s the anchor upon which the Penguins playoff hopes are latched to or an average goaltender that’s getting paid an average goaltender’s salary. I can see truths in both sides of the endless argument, but can’t help but be swayed to the former of them.

It would be so much easier to label this contract were the term lengthier or the dollars more exorbitant. At four-years and $23 million though, this one is difficult to put a thumb on. There are just so many variables. There are good aspects, bad ones and maybe even alternatives to this contract that are all worth exploring. Lets do just that, shall we?

The Good

Even Fleury’s most ardent critics would be willing enough to describe him as a league average starter. Fleury can’t necessarily do the job exceedingly well, but he can do the job. There’s also been a remarkable uptick in his performance this season. He’s posting a .931 SV% on a team that is rolling through the Eastern Conference. Whether we can ascribe this to the new system employed by first-year bench boss, Mike Johntson or a new found commitment to the finer aspects of goaltending, as taught by his new goaltending coach, is difficult to say. Whatever the case, his results are encouraging.

Fleury might be an average goaltender at best, but that leaves little room for complaints as far as his new contract goes. Largely, because he’s paid like a league average goaltender. While the AAV on his contract increases, it’s worth noting that the percentage of his team’s cap space that Fleury is accountable for is decreasing. And that’s just in the first year. Imagine the extent of that decrease by year three or five. Should be sizable. There’s also an apparent lack of alternatives that made this deal a priority in Pittbsurgh.

The Bad

If a league average starter is the best that the Penguins can hope to get from Fleury, then why attach $5.75 million to those hopes? That’s a lot of money for a goaltender that they hope will be average. His career sv% of .911 doesn’t even qualify for that middling descriptor, although much of this can be attributed to his being shelled in the early goings of his career. This doesn’t even touch on his playoff performance. Last season, Fleury’s .915 was considered a return to form. Just a season prior, Fleury lost his job to the remains of Tomas Vokoun after a horrible performance in the first round against the New York Islanders. Here’s where things get quite hairy, though. In the four seasons before losing his job in the playoffs to Vokoun, Fleury posted .834, .899, .891 and .908 sv%. His career sv% in the post-season is .905. Not even close to touching on average.

Which is what makes this contract so peculiar. The Penguins have two generational talents in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in their primes. For the first time since their Stanley Cup in the 2008-09 season, they’ve done a relatively good job of supplementing them with depth players. This is a team that should compete for a Stanley Cup almost annually. It seems likely that they could, too. With even a reliable and consistently average goaltender – on a lower salary, presumably – this club could wreak havoc in spring on an annual basis. Instead they’ve invested nearly $6 million with just a sliver of a hope that they will get this from their netminder. This contract represents a huge investment in a relative unknown.

The Alternatives

Words can not describe my lament for the “well, what alternatives were there?” excuse. Get creative. General managers are paid quite handsomely to build hockey teams. Every year there are scrap heap findings that turn to gold. Especially in net, because goaltenders are voodoo. As a matter of fact Penguins general manager, Jim Rutherford, found one such goaltender last season in Anton Khudobin! This year, I would argue he’s found one with similar upside in Thomas Greiss. Greiss was fourth in even-strength sv% last season on a fragile Arizona Coyotes team and has a remarkably effective track record thus far in his young career. I can understand Rutherford’s reticence to go all-in on Greiss, as he’s never started more than 25 games in an NHL season. He’s also yet to pass the 3000 shot test, for discovering a goaltenders true talent level.

Thomas Greiss Coyotes
Is Thomas Greiss ready for the show? (Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports)

That represents just one option, though. Antti Niemi is another option they could have explored, either through trade or free agency. The cost in either resources to acquire him or funds to sign him would be considerably more than the “Flower”, but this makes sense considering Niemi is vastly better. What of James Reimer, who demanded a trade from Toronto this off-season? He has a much better recent track record than Fleury, playing on a team that is shelled on an almost nightly basis in terms of shots. Or perhaps it’s worth looking into Martin Jones’ availability in Los Angeles? Eddie Lack has essentially lost his starting job in Vancouver for now and the foreseeable future. Might have been worth looking into his availability. If the Penguins were willing to take a risk, they could have explored other options. Lest we forget, nothing about signing Fleury is safe.