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.

 

 

 

Pens Preview: James Neal

If ever there was a deadline pick-up that caused more elation, then frustration, then more elation, then abject hatred, then more (un)conditional love followed by even more anger and hostility than James “The Real Deal” Neal, I do not remember who this individual was or why we were so excited and then hate-filled.

I know I have said some unkind things about the general Pens’ fan base before. I don’t have a problem with bandwagon fans. I don’t have a problem with “new” fans because everyone has to start somewhere. I do, however, have a problem with ignorant and/or senseless fans. I’m not saying people should not get emotionally involved with the game and let their emotions sometimes get the best of them. If everyone watched the game from up on high and took themselves completely out of the game it wouldn’t be fun. Sometimes we say things in the heat of the moment or we make comments about a player because of one thing or another. James Neal has shown so many people need to be on mood stabilizers. In the span of 27 games Neal went from savior and to villain. I’ll be first to admit that, yes, he did need to put a few of his chances in the back of the net, but he was also one of the few players on the depleted roster generating offense and making the most what was being offered.

Not pictured: Everyone's unreal expectations of James Neal

I, personally, was a fan of James Neal while he was coming up with Dallas. I never imagined the Pens would be able to peel him away from Dallas. I likened him to Jamie Benn in the Dallas organization and it would take a gross overpayment to get him out of there. Shero was able to get Neal and Niskanen for Alex Goligoski. Don’t get me wrong, I loved Goose and I thought he was unnecessarily shat upon by many fans, but I would make that trade every single day of the week. It was a good hockey trade, too, as Dallas was in desperate need for a puck-moving offensive D-man, and Pittsburgh was in need of legitimate top-6 forwards to play with those guys named Crosby and Malkin, once each got healthy.

And therein lies the rub. Neal wasn’t brought in to be the entire offense and to carry the team. He was brought in to play alongside one of the top line centers and make space, rush the net, bang bodies, and clear a path for the star players all the while keeping the opposing teams honest because he isn’t afraid to shoot and you disrespect his skill at your own peril. The argument has often been made that Staal could play top-line center for just about any team in the league. He was afforded, unfortunately, that opportunity for about 1/3 of the season this year, and while he had a productive year, he clearly was out-of-place. Neal-Staal-Kovalev was not exactly the line anyone had expected, nor was it the line one needed to worry about defending. Neal complements the center, Kovy played without any hustle, and Staal was the scoring threat on the line.

Maybe in NHL from EA Sports that line would put up unlimited goals and be a combined +28498, but in the real world the player styles are a little too different to make things work. Need I remind everyone, Mark Letestu was playing top line center minutes. That’s how messed up it was. Was Neal’s season with Pittsburgh simply a culmination of too many unkind variables? Maybe. Did people, on the whole, have unrealistic expectations about what he could bring in ~20 games? Absolutely. Neal came up playing with defensively minded and “safe” coaches in Dave Tippet and Marc Crawford. Moving to Bylsma’s style and system is a hard transition. I feel people lost sight of that fact. There are other variables, too, in the mix. Neal’s off-season training is with none other than Gary Roberts. I have my concerns that the training regimen is a little too harsh or too rigid. Steven Stamkos, too, trains under Roberts and both he and Neal had the same issues — fading down the stretch. The work rate is there, but the skill level drops off some from earlier in the season. May be from wearing down, may be from other things. Perhaps this is all just baseless conjecture, too.

With all of that out of the way, let’s take a look at the season by the numbers (outright, combined between Dallas and Pittsburgh)

79GP, 22G, 23A, 45P, +7, 66PIM, 212S, 10.4S%, 5PPG, 5PPA, 0SHG, 0SHA, 3GWG, 17:30TOI

We’ll start with the obvious stuff. Playing 79 games is no small feat, especially given the game Neal plays. If you need a reminder as to what that looks like, just watch this video a few times and then imagine what that will look like with Sidney Crosby and, potentially, Chris Kunitz. My God.

To bang bodies like he does and go to the dirty areas for goals, it takes a toll on one’s body. The upside to the Roberts School of Domination is that it does allow Neal to play that way and not become so overly worn down that he needs to take time off and that his body heals quickly. The downside, as mentioned above, is that constant pounding like that can have a long tail and maybe cause a drop off in pure skill plays.

Offensive production, too, is impressive, if a little skewed. 45 points in 79 games is about .6 points per game. Not bad production at all. 22 goals in 79 games puts him squarely in the mold of 1 goal every 3-4 games. Would like to see that tick up to the goal per 2-3 games, but I’ll take 20+ goals regularly. 23 assists is nothing to sneeze at, either. It should not be lost on anyone that his goal production AND assist production are nearly identical. He is scoring, but he’s also setting up the scoring.

Looking deeper into the goal scoring, and this is specifically dealing with his time with the Pens, he wasn’t as disappointing as people made him out to be, but it was a little bit of a letdown when only one goal is scored when he was able to do that 21 other times with Dallas. On a more positive note, in the two games (playoffs included) where Neal scores a goal, the Pens went 2-0.

After being acquired by the Pens, Neal was a minus player 7 of 20 games. In those 7 games, the Pens went 5-2. As a neutral player, the Pens went 3-5. As a plus player, the Pens went 4-1. No real discernible pattern emerges from looking at the trend line. Unlike a Michalek or even a Cooke, looking at +/- doesn’t hold any type of forecast for the Pens and probability of winning or losing outside of “when your top player is a + you typically win.” Simply put, Neal was a minus player 7 times and a neutral or plus player 13 times. Given how few goals the team was scoring once he was acquired, I would say that’s pretty solid two-way play for a guy not necessarily known for being a pure two-way player, like Jordan Staal.

What is mystifying about Neal is if you look at his entire season of production by month.

October: 5G, 5A, 10P, +6

November: 5G, 6A, 11P, +6

December: 3G, 5A, 8P, -1

January: 7G, 1A, 8P, 0+/-

February: 1G, 1A, 2P, -4

March: 1G, 4A, 5P, 0

April: 0G, 1A, 1P, 0

How a player can go from being an absolutely dominant force for the first four months and then become a snakebitten corpse in the point production is truly something to wonder. Is it possible that fatigue was setting in? I believe that was a contributing factor. Add in the fact that he was playing in a new system and playing with guys who were in way over their respective heads attempting to do more than they ever should have been expected to. It was a dangerous combination of things that all came to head and caused many shortsighted fans to call for Shero’s head because Neal didn’t score 30 goals in 20 games.

Additionally, none of the games this season were offensive blowouts to possibly skew the numbers. Neal only had one 3 point game all year (11/18 – DAL v SJS). All others were 2 or fewer points.

Also, for the record, Neal had an assist and was a +1 in the 5-2 romp vs the Penguins, when this memorable moment occurred:

Remember how Sid went on an unreal point scoring tear after that game? Oh, those were the days. It became even funnier that the Pens picked up Niskanen along with Neal to bring it all full circle.

There is no one team which Neal has dominated against, either. That is less of a concern as the majority of his games came against Western Conference teams the Pens will only see one or two times each year. He did, however, prove to be a shootout ace. I know everyone liked to make jokes about how he could only score goals in the shootout, but as long as regular season games are determined by a skill competition, I’ll gladly have him on the team. I had jokingly commented during the season that Neal needed to take a page from Ovechkin’s playbook and cherry pick  past center read and wait for the home run passes from Michalek or Martin and just score on breakaways by pretending it’s a shoot out attempt.

Seriously, though, I’ll never forgot him making Brodeur look like a fool in this attempt:

As far as playoff performance went, well, I think we all remember the work that Neal put in each game. He didn’t have an atrocious game all series (the worst coming in the 8-2 loss, in which he was a -2 with only 1 shot on goal). In game 7, when all the chips were down, he did manage 6 shots on goal. It wasn’t for lack of trying or effort. Of course, we all remember game 4 of the series and the absolutely insane and prophetic talking of Paul Steigerwald and Bob Errey.

Another aspect of Neal’s game is the time spent in the penalty box, or, more appropriately, the lack of time spent in the penalty box. He racked up only 66 total minutes in penalties all year, 19 of which came in a single game vs. Edmonton. Throw out the game vs EDM and he had 47PIM in 78 games. That is impressive, given the totality of the game being played and the fact that he is solid defensively, too.

Ultimately, Neal is only in his 4th year in the NHL. He’s still an incredibly young, up and coming talent. He played with stars on the Stars and put up great numbers. He played with chumps and guys out of  their element in Pittsburgh and put up not so great numbers. We could see what type of skill he had when the shoot out rolled around, but you can’t always count on playing to the SO each game. If one truly wants to evaluate whether Neal was an excellent pick-up, especially given the depth we had on D and how Goligoski became expendable, I suggest you wait until after he gets a full training camp in with the team. We can revisit his performance with the Pens once the All-star break rolls around next season. People have been willing to forgive players like Fleury and Letang for every misstep “because they are young and have a lot to learn.” The pendulum swings that way with Neal, too. He’s a young buck who, frankly, is playing better hockey than can be expected from such a young guy who has been part of a somewhat crummy organization since being drafted.

We won’t really know how the trade worked out until the end of next season. Neal getting to play with guys like Sid and Geno could be exactly what he needs to be a 30+ goal scorer and 60+ point getter. Or maybe he just doesn’t fit the Pens system (I disagree, I think he is the perfect definition of what it means to be a Pittsburgh Penguin) and we’ll go our separate ways. I expect a big year out of him, provided Sid and/or Geno are healthy.

Looking ahead, assuming the stars are playing and the situation is normal, I expect the following out of Neal

77GP, 31G, 28A, 59P, +15, 82PIM, 225S, 13.7S%, 4PPG, 9PPA, 0SHG, 0SHA, 18:17TOI.

For good or bad, I feel the spotlight will be squarely on Mr. Neal this season. Let’s hope it is all for the good and we have the long-term solution and replacement for Kunitz on Sid’s wing (or we keep both Koon and Neal…my God…bodies will be banged, history will be made).

Let’s go Pens.

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