Pens Preview: Marc-Andre Fleury

I have been known to be something of a “Fleury hater” for many years. I don’t like the term “hater” because that implies a complete and total illogical dislike of a player for reasons that cannot be logic’d or discussed. When I would discuss Fleury’s previous disappointments I would do so with facts and figures and it usually got people to either get real quiet or jump on the “well, I’m a better fan because I don’t criticize players on my team” wagon. This season was truly a tale of two players. I’m happy to say he shut me the Hell up and did his job. With that, I give you the Pens Preview: Marc-Andre Fleury.

Amazing how much leeway having your name on the Cup nets you when dealing with critics.

Do goaltenders get unjust criticism and unjust praise? Yes, they do. Much in the same way quarterbacks in the NFL get unjust criticism and undue praise (Trent Dilfer, circa 2000 Ravens, I’d like a word), but it is also part of the job and position. A goaltender has to be mentally tough. There is so little room for error and every movement and mistake is magnified because of being the only player of that position on the ice for your team. Mistakes often lead to goals. Many goals lead to losses. Thus, goaltender mistakes are the cause of losses, thus the goaltender is the cause of the loss. Anyone who watches any sport knows that very rarely can one man be blamed, wholly and exclusively for a loss. Poor goaltending is one of those areas where you can point to a specific instance for a loss.

If that doesn’t begin when I time stamped it, skip to the 8:50 mark. If you want to see a bad goal, that is a bad goal. It’s a bad technical goal because of not having his stick in position and from leaving a gaping hole between his pads and it was an atrociously bad goal because he allowed that with less than two minutes to play in a tie game in the 3rd period. A goal that should never, ever, ever be allowed by a professional goaltender is bad enough, but they happen. To allow Scott Gomez’s eyebrows to score that goal late in a game and lose in the same manner (i.e. atrocious goaltending) to the team responsible for eliminating you from playoffs the year before? Yikes. You’d think you’d be able to get up for a game like that and show you put the previous season behind you. At the start of the year? Nah, the Flower had none of that. I was one of the lone voices in 2010 indicating he was a major weakness on a lazy team and everyone called me a bad fan and how I didn’t know what I was talking about. Well, his 2011 season started off exactly as his 2010 season ended.

65GP, 62GS, 56:51TOI, 36W, 20L, 5OTL, 143GA, 2.32GAA, 1742SA, 1599SV, 918SV%, 3SO

In the first 10 games played by no. 29, the Pens went 4-6 (the team’s first win came with Brent Johnson between the pipes) and Flower allowed 28 goals on 219 shots. One of the team wins was on November 6 when Fleury was pulled after 6:56 ice time when he allowed 2 goals on 5 shots. Within the first 10 games he was boasting a killer .845 SV%. It makes one wonder how he finished with such stellar numbers and how he became THE most important player down the stretch when he started out so rough.

Thankfully the Cup isn’t awarded in October or November. Thankfully Dan Bylsma found his spine and benched Fleury as he continued to cost the team games and valuable points. Everyone made jokes and comments about the playoffs don’t start in October, but every point matters. Need I remind everyone just how crucial a few of those lost points were at the end of the season? One more point and we would have won the Atlantic division. Really, though, I feel the season and turnaround in MAF’s game came hinged on him being benched and getting his mind straight. That little win streak and Crosby’s unreal point streak helped from mid-November helped, but sometimes things come together as they need to. In this case, Flower got sat down and the team started getting together.

I will say this – I am glad that Fleury was garbage to begin the year and Johnny played out of his mind because I had the best Halloween costume I’ve ever made:

Looking at the stats, it was a pretty impressive season overall for Marc-Andre. Started 62 games, no major injuries, had excellent relief in Brent Johnson, posting a 36-20 record and, more importantly, a .918SV% and 2.32GAA. A .918SV% was good enough for 15th overall in the NHL and the 2.32 GAA placed him 9th in the NHL among goaltenders. Either way you slice it, Fleury finished the season as a top-half of the league goaltender. It is imperative to note how the defense played, too, down the stretch. Flower and his D reliably held opposing teams to 2 goals or fewer per game. Sadly, Fleury’s very, very bad start caused his stats to be a little less impressive.

More importantly, and this is never really shown in the statistics, is the quality of the saves and the importance of the saves. In 2010 MAF was known for giving up soft and poorly timed goals. To start 2011 he was also giving up the same poorly timed and soft goals. He gave up bad goals. As the season moved on he made BIG saves. He made important saves. He eliminated the back-breaking and painful goals (like the one to Gomez linked above). He made the saves that a big time goaltender needed to make. Previously he wasn’t making those (less some huge saves in the ’09 Cup run). Even though the end result was not what we had all hoped, “history stops everything.”

Sadly the Pens’ popgun offense was not enough to overcome Fleury playing out of his mind and allowing two goals or fewer regularly from about January onward. In December and January he only had one game where his save percentage was below .900 (12/26 vs OTT). Month by month, 29’s SV% was as follows:

October: .863

November: .931

December: .931

January: .942

February: .899

March: .916

If you are partial to seeing things in action instead of on paper (or on a computer screen), just take a look at this:

And the Shootouts. How could we ignore the shootouts? Everyone joked about the Pens going to so many shootouts as the season went on, but the goaltender is the most important part of the shootout. By record, MAF was 2nd best in the NHL in Wins in a shootout (with 8). Overall in the SO, Flower had an .842SV%, facing 38 shots and allowed only 6 goals. A truly, truly astonishing feat, considering how the modern shootout is stacked against the goaltender. And, of course, we can never forget that we got to see some of the flourish that goes into the shootout preparation. Roll that beautiful bean footage:

Overall, Flower performed statistically better at home, but had a disproportionate amount of losses (largely due to the early season) compared to road games. At home, 29 showed a .924SV% and a 2.17GAA. On the road he posted a .911SV% and 2.51GAA. In overall wins, he posted a .940%, whereas in losses he posted a .880%. The old adage of “the team that scores more goals wins,” but the goaltender plays a vital role in that bearing true. If Fleury was having a bad game, there was typically a loss attached to it. When looking at save percentage with regard to days of rest between games, Fleury showed to be much better as an active goaltender than one with substantial time between games. When playing two games back to back he averaged a .925%; with 1 day of rest he posted a .915%, but with 2 days of rest he kipped up to a .938%, but with 3 or more days off he dropped terribly to .894%.

Statistically, it was a very good year. 143 goals allowed was the fewest he’s allowed when playing 50 or more games. Likewise, 2.32 is the lowest GAA he’s ever had in his NHL career. It was also his best save percentage (again with a minimum of 50 games). The only area where he was a “disappointment” was only having 3 shutouts on the season, which was an uptick from last season when he only had 1, but a drop from the two seasons prior, both in which he had 4 shut outs.

It truly was a magical year for Marc-Andre. He started off poorly, got benched, took his benching like a man, earned back his starting job and then kept the team in so many games. I fear there will be a little bit of a drop off next season, but I’m hopeful he can play consistently, as that has always been an issue until this year, and keep doing what works for him. It is so hard to really evaluate a goaltender just by looking at a stat line because, as mentioned above, there are intangibles surrounding the quality and timeliness of saves and making a big save to swing momentum or deflate another team. This year, MAF had “it.” The element to his game that had been missing was rediscovered and hopefully he doesn’t lose it again. Looking ahead to next season, here’s how I see the major statistics breaking down:

67GP, 65GS, 57:03TOI, 38W, 17L, 4OTL, 136GA, 2.41GAA, 1715SA, 1579SV, .911SV%, 5SO.

I expect a good year out of MAF. I fear he may have a little bit of up-and-down play. He’ll tick those SO numbers up because he’s got an all-world defense in front of him most of the night, but I think will have a very slight fall off from this season’s numbers because he’ll have a little more offense in front of him and he can gamble on things like the pokecheck and/or getting off his leash and attempting to play the puck (Marc, please stop – stay in the crease, don’t try to play the puck. Hextall and Brodeur you ain’t).

Oh, how silly of me, I forgot the most important stat: 1 B-Boy pose

Let’s go Pens.

 

 

 

Fearless

I had a number of things I wanted to talk about, but I’ve been having a bugger of a time putting things into words today. I started writing a different entry this morning. I just haven’t had the focus I needed to put into words what I was thinking. Unfortunately, that feeling is nothing new to me. It has been one of those things I’ve had to deal with before and I like to keep reminding myself how much it sucks. Good for a little perspective at times.

Originally I was going to post about my pond I’ve been working on (I promise I will and will post the photos soon), but it felt a little lazy and disingenuous, especially when compared to some of the other things I’ve discussed. Outright I didn’t have the concentration or ability to work on a new Pens Preview. I really enjoy writing those, but they require some serious focus and dedication to examining details and working through tons of stats and various numbers. I’m feeling edgy right now, no way would I be able to write one of those.

Then I saw something that got me going. Grant Imahara of Mythbusters fame Re-tweeted a link to a video early today. He linked to this video.

Generally speaking I avoid listening to commercial radio and/or Pop music/Top 40 type stuff. Just not really my style (that, my friends, can be another post where I get on my snobby soapbox about the lack of talent, or more appropriately, the inability to sell a record based on talent because the consumer is a tasteless assclown). Honest to goodness, the most exposure I get to pop music is when it is covered by the people on Glee (haters gonna hate). The most exposure I had to this song was from Glee’s rendition of it or the random and sparse occasions when I would be in a shop or someone else would have a radio tuned to a top 40 station. With such limited exposure to it I never really considered the lyrics or, frankly, who the artist was. I had to look up that the track is one of Pink’s songs. What makes that even more depressing is that I really enjoyed Pink’s 1st record and was so-so-to-happy with her second major release. She just kinda fell off my radar as time went on, but that’s nothing new to any who know me.

I watched the video and I really enjoyed it. So I watched it again. Then another time. Each time I was noticing something about it, but it wasn’t about the actual video of the people featured in it. I was noticing the lyrics to the song. As mentioned previously, I don’t often find much value in pop music. In all likelihood this song, too, will be forgotten in a relatively short stretch of time, but I wanted to give it a few moments of my time because it speaks to something I like in my music, literature, etc – it empowers.

You may laugh, and I may look like a fool for saying so, but it is a song that I feel is something of an anthem for people, or at least a rallying call. Obviously there is a party element to the song, but I see it all as a carpe diem type mentality. More importantly, I see the call for individuality and being oneself. The repetition in the chorus calling for all the underdogs and those who are “wrong in the right ways.” This is a common thread with those of us who are a one-off type personality.

I am an odd bird. I don’t deny this. I pride myself on being, well, a little strange. Those who have come to know me over the years can attest to the fact that, well, I’m pretty darn weird. Not a bad weird or a creepy weird, just…odd. I don’t often see things the way others do, nor do I often have a popular opinion on things. I am a self avowed geek of all trades. I don’t deny it and I was one of the few who embraced being an oddity at a younger age. It worked for me and I try to encourage people to be themselves in this life instead of what other people want them to be.

The song, however, really caught my attention when I saw it paired up with the video of the cosplayers from the Comic-Con. Comic readers, cosplayers, video game players, etc have been at the fore of groups deemed socially unacceptable and generally seen as a strange underclass of weirdos that nobody likes. I grew up reading all types of comics. I am a video game collector. I’ve been to a number of E3 conferences. I go to toy and collectible shows. I’ve even been known to dress up for events before in costume (William Howard Taft being one of my more famous appearances). I know the looks I’ve gotten from people for being, well, all of those things I listed. They are even more shocked when they actually talk to me and realize I am sociable, rather intelligent, don’t smell like dirt that’s been humped by a hobo, and cast a wide net when it comes to things that interest me.

This video, though, got me really thinking about how these people, my people, really are wrong in all the right ways. We don’t belong but we also don’t really care. We are, as the song says, a bunch of “dirty little freaks.”

The people featured in this video are everything I like to see in others and like to see in myself when I can. These people are fearless.

They know the type of reactions they get from the general society and just how many people could possibly see them lip sync-ing to a Pink song on Youtube and they all said “fuck it” and just went with it because of being sure of who they are and what they do for themselves. I admire the Hell out of all of them for doing as such and I wish more people were confident in what they do in this life. It is like the old saying of sing/dance like nobody can see you. Just go out and do your thing. Be yourself. Be empowered. Be fearless.

I know that some of this has been poorly worded and phrased. I apologize for that. Like I said, I’ve been real edgy and unable to focus. Additional apologies as this has gone from one idea to the next. It’s been one of those days. In light of yesterday’s events and the milestone marker it was, I’m surprised I’m as together as I am. I also want to take a moment to thank everyone for their kind words and their thoughts over the last few days. I know I allow myself to get down about things and sometimes lose the perspective that I do have a number of good people in my life who genuinely care about it. It doesn’t go unnoticed or unappreciated, even if I am terrible at expressing it sometimes. But that’s who I am and you all have accepted me for who I am, just as I try, try, try to accept all of you for who you are.

Fearless. Not cocky, not covering up shortcomings, not a sleight of hand. Unafraid of what criticism may come and being in one’s glory. What a feeling. I hope I can continue to be fearless about things in my life. I hope you all, too, get to experience that. Be without fear and you will live forever.

Pens Preview: Zbynek Michalek

For those of you who know me, even remotely well, you know that Zbynek Michalek is my favorite player in the NHL. Not just my favorite Penguins player, but my overall favorite player in the entire NHL. I feel the need to address this notion of being a complete and total fanboy for no. 4, as it will be difficult to take a purely objective view of his play and what he brings to the team. I am going to try, but you may have to excuse some fanboy squealing.

When July 1, 2010 rolled around I don’t remember any people other than myself and one or two others banging the drum that Shero needed to sign a defenseman from the Phoenix Coyotes named “Zbynek Michalek.” Everyone recognized the last name because of Milan Michalek, currently a forward for the Ottawa Senators, known for scoring at least one unreal goal per season against the Pens. As a Western Conference player in a market not known for TV exposure, many Pens fans had no idea who or what a “Zbynek Michalek” was.

As the season began everyone was quick to write off both Michalek and Martin as busts because of spending $9M combined on the two. While I agree that the initial sticker shock is high, it really is a bargain when one considers the deals that defensmen got on the open market THIS July. Christian Ehrhoff was signed by the Buffalo Sabres to a 10-year, front loaded contract with an annual cap hit of $4M. While I understand the differences in the game being played by Ehrhoff and Michalek, the money comparison is…wow. If you really want to have a laugh, look at the contract that James Wisniewski was signed to by the Columbus Blue Jackets. 6 years at $5.5M per year. The talking heads in Pittsburgh have crowed that Paul Martin is a bust and overpaid (I completely and totally disagree, but that’s for a later post). Wisniewski finished the season as a -14 all while having recorded 51 points. Let that sink in for a minute. He finished a -14 while recording 51 points (only 10 goals). While Wis may be able to help CBJ’s PP (he did post 29 points on the PP last season), is it worth 5+ million?

As mentioned, I understand the differences in the games and responsibilities of the players are different. If one simply looks at the +/- rating of a player or a point total it can be grossly misleading. Michalek is a prime example, as his career +/- rating is -22, but you can clearly see where the numbers become skewed. -20 and -13 seasons with Phoenix will certainly move the numbers in that direction. As a stay-at-home defensive d-man, though, it’s respectable to hover around neutral +/- most seasons. For the sake of comparison, Brooks Orpik’s career +/- is a -1, and he’s played most of his career with guys like Crosby, Malkin, and Fleury, all of whom have a HUGE impact on +/- rating. Now that some comparisons have been made and my fandom has been brought to light, let’s take a look at the season of “Big Z,” Zbynek Michalek.

73GP, 5G, 14A, 19P, 0+/-, 30PIM, 104S, 4.8S%, 1PPG, 3PPA, 0SHG, 0SHA, 2GWG, 21:50TOI

Much like with Mr. Cooke, the stats do not tell the whole story. Michalek was hurt in the 3rd game of the season against the New Jersey Devils and missed substantial-but-not-season-crippling time. In his first three games as a Penguin, the Pens went 1-2, both losses coming when Z was a minus player. The lone victory came against the Devils and Michalek finished as a neutral in +/-, but only played 7 minutes and change. Z returned to action a few weeks later against the Dallas Stars, where he also was a minus player in a losing effort (the only reason that game is remembered is because of a certain Sidney Crosby getting into a fight with a certain Matt Niskanen). From here on out, it no longer became a coincidence that Michalek being a minus player typically translated into a Penguins loss.

After returning from injury the Pens records W/ Michalek in the line-up:

As a MINUS player: 6-14

As a neutral rating: 17-12

As a PLUS player: 20-1

When combined, when Michalek is neutral or a plus player, the Pens record was 37-13. I’m glossing over the OT records for the sake of simplicity. I’m just going straight win-loss, not factoring in loser points for the team. It is hard to deny the value of a player like Michalek, even though he doesn’t show up on the score sheet regularly. For the chattering class, though, it is easy to overlook how important players like Michalek are because they don’t put up James Wisniewski or Kris Letang like numbers on offense. With a guy like Michalek, it becomes difficult to review them outside of +/- rating, because these types of players do not put up huge offensive numbers, and in the age of Youtube there aren’t many highlight videos of shot blocking and boxing out opposition.

Overall +/-, in victories Michalek was a combined +22. Conversely, in combined losses he was a -22. The Pens also went undefeated in games when Michalek scored, going 5-0. At home, Michalek was a +3 on the season, while was a -3 on the season as the away team.

Obviously Michalek is integral as a shut-down defenseman. He is placed against the opposing team’s top scorers regularly and he and mate Paul Martin have done an extraordinary job of keeping those scorers in check and keeping Fleury from facing too many primo scoring chances. That said, when there has been a breakdown, both Michalek and Martin have done excellent jobs of recovering and helping out Fleury and/or the forwards who were back in the zone to help. We all remember only too well these moments from the game against the Kings this past season when Michalek saved the team not once but twice in the first period.

In the first case you can see Letang take his man, but nobody was covering Justin Williams. Michalek took away the cross crease play and moved in as Fleury moved out, saving a goal with some absolutely unreal stickwork. In the second play, well, Bob Errey does a fine job of explaining how Michalek played it perfectly. He stuck with the Kings player and prevented him from making a play by separating him from the puck then, either by luck or skill (or both, as it would seem with great players), cleared it from the crease with some help by Vitale showing some hustle. Everyone wet their pants (self included) when Scuderi made a play like that (granted, the stakes were a little higher then), but everyone just kinda goes catatonic when guys who didn’t grow up on the Pens farm do it.

In pure defensive stats, Michalek ranked 27th in the NHL in shot blocking, with 149 shots blocked,  had 56 hits, and 14 takeaways. Outside of shotblocking, the stats do not stand out as a killer or league leader, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Being an all around defensive player is what is needed for your top-4.

Zbynek certainly had an interesting year on special teams, too. He was originally never planned to be used on the power play, but as the season went on and the injuries mounted, he became one of the steady hands on the PP, even scoring a PP goal and netting 3 PPA. More importantly, Michalek was a leader on the penalty kill, averaging 3:46 of PK time each game. I feel this would be an opportune time to mention that the Pens finished the season no. 1 overall in PK with 86.1% success rate of killing penalties. For those playing the home game, that is a staggering statistic. It becomes even more terrifying when you realize the Pens were assessed the most penalties in the NHL with 480. The Pens were assessed 374 minor penalties, 74 major penalties, 13 misconducts, 10 game misconducts, a 1 match penalty. All combined for a total of 1388 penalty minutes. The Pens averaged 16.9 minutes of PK time per game.

Let all of those stats sink in for a few minutes. Really. Go get a glass of water, maybe tend to your garden or play with your dog or cat. Think about all the penalties and the fact that the Pens lead the NHL in PK percentage. Even my mind is blown, and I saw every single game.

Allow me to say that I don’t want to discount the efforts of other penalty killers. Craig Adams, Max Talbot, Brooks Orpik, Paul Martin, Kris Letang, Pascal Dupuis, Matt Cooke, and any others I’ve forgotten and/or helped pitch in all worked to create such an absolutely insane penalty kill unit. Of course, it could all be for naught, too, had Marc-Andre Fleury and Brent Johnson not been completely insane between the pipes for the majority of the year, either.

I could go into each category, but you will likely tune out, if you have not done so already, by discussing the point production and ratings against each team. Much like Cooke, there is no one team that Michalek excelled against. He played well against just about everyone. Shockingly, his worst numbers came against Montreal and Carolina. Not exactly two juggernauts of offense or skill. Sometimes there are just teams that have your number. Hopefully those things get fixed next year.

I think it is clear just how important Michalek has become to the success of the team. He may not light the lamp too often or lay out too many hits (both of which I expect to see an uptick in next year), but he is a calm, stable presence on the blueline that is sadly undervalued. There is also a clear correlation between his play and +/- rating and the success of the team. He isn’t allowing much to get behind him or his goaltender and he’s allowing the forwards to do their work. In the entire season there was only one game in which Michalek was a plus player (+1) and the team lost – 2/23 vs San Jose Sharks, and even in defeat they managed to salvage a loser point by going to OT.

What to expect out of Zbynek next year? Well, it’s hard to say. Offensively, I do think he will become more involved, both getting a little time on the PP as well as being more certain of his shot and having guys like Malkin and Crosby around regularly to take some unreal first passes out of the zone. Defensively? I really do not know what more you can ask from him that he did not show us this season.

Projected stats (and like Cooke, these are completely a gut feeling, not basing this off any scientific model):

77GP, 8G, 21A, 29P, 36PIM, +5, 118S, 1PPG, 2PPA, 0SHG, 1SHA, 3GWG, 22:10TOI

I say expect more of the same from Zybnek with hopefully a little more offense, as he does have an amazing bomb from the point, and hopefully a little more using his size. I expect the shot blocking to remain in the ~150 range, but expect to see the hits go north of 60. Likewise, I expect to see the takeaways tick up toward 20. Not huge improvements, but enough that the overall play will improve above and beyond what I already believe to be a grossly underrated defensive playmaker.

Let’s go Pens.

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