Evolving Fleury Part of Looming Penguins Decisions
Within hours of blowing a 3-1 series lead against the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference Second Round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs it was pretty clear big changes are coming in Pittsburgh, but for a change the angst is not focussed exclusively on beleaguered No.1 goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury.
After meltdowns the previous two post-seasons made him the most obvious reason they ended early in Pittsburgh, Fleury ended this season well down the lists of Penguins playoff problems.
That’s not to say some aren’t still calling for Fleury to be bought out of the final season of a contract with a $5-million salary cap hit, or there aren’t still legitimate questions about elements of his play in these playoffs. But most at least seem to recognize the strides Fleury made this season under new goalie coach Mike Bales.
In a nutshell, Bales tried to have Fleury play a much more contained game predominantly within the blue ice, or at least with his heels at the edge of the crease. It was a big change from a more aggressive initial positioning of past seasons, and as outlined in my recent story for NHL.com, it’s easy to demonstrate how his old habits contributed to the playoff meltdowns of 2012 and 2013, especially since Fleury tended to get even more aggressive when things started to go poorly, chasing the play instead of his next save position.
As Fleury told InGoal Magazine during the regular season, playing a more passive style wasn’t necessarily an easy adjustment.
“That’s one thing we worked on throughout the summer maybe, not challenging as much,” Fleury said. “It’s not easy when you see guys in the slot with time to pick corners and stuff, just waiting there. I think sometimes they are going to be able to pick those corners, so you think you have to be able to get out there and be aggressive.”
Curtailing those instincts was part of a process made more difficult by practice sessions that left corner-picking snipers like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and James Neal with all kinds of time and space. It’s something even Rangers star Henrik Lundqvist said can be difficult, trusting a deeper position while getting lit up in during wide-open practices that typically do little to help the goalie, and knowing those same shooters may get that same easy practice look two or three times during an entire NHL season.
“If guys are coming in and taking that extra two seconds to shoot and pick that corner on you, you just have to realize in a game situation they won’t get that time, so you should still trust your instincts,” Lundqvist told InGoal. “But it is tough, especially when you play deep like me and you give up a goal because you didn’t cover enough, to still stick with your structure and not start challenging. But that’s the challenge.”
It’s a challenge Fleury met for the most part during the 2014 playoffs, and arguably a big reason why they ended with a .915 save percentage after being well below .900 in each of the past four postseasons, including just .834 in 2012 and .883 before losing the starting job to Tomas Vokoun in the 2013 playoffs. Fleury finished 2014 with a .931 even-strength save percentage, trailing Tuukka Rask (.947), Henrik Lundqvist (.940) and Carey Price (.935) among goalies that played four games, and ahead of Sergei Bobrovsky (.929), Corey Crawford (.928) and Jonathan Quick (.916). Fleury’s even-strength saver percentage was a woeful .885 in 2013 and .886 in 2012.
Thats not to say there isn’t still a lot of room for improvement for a goalie that won the Stanley Cup in 2009.
Fleury did chase outside his crease a couple of times during these playoffs, including a costly Game 6 goal against the Rangers that left him swimming out of the play and stacking the pads in desperation. There were a couple of other times he chased the play so fast and hard that he managed to put himself out of position without even leaving the crease, and a couple more than went right through him.
Yet, despite some calls during national broadcasts of a “meltdown,” especially during the first round against Columbus, it never materialized like it did the past two years. That’s because Fleury adjusted how and where he played, as outlined in the NHL.com article:
If there were defining characteristics of those past two playoff collapses, they were aggressive positioning and extra movement, two things that often go hand in hand for goalies because the further away from their net they start a play, the more they have to move laterally to stay centered on it, and the more distance they have to travel to recover back to their posts as the play unfolds.
For Fleury this manifested itself in several ways that led to ugly-looking goals.
Off the rush he typically challenged a foot or more outside the top of his crease, rarely venturing as excessively as Jonathan Quick with the Los Angeles Kings or even Jimmy Howard with the Detroit Red Wings, but enough to get caught. Sometimes it was the short lateral shuffles he used from a narrow stance that left him moving while a shot was taken off the rush, catching him stuck on his skates rather than dropping into a butterfly, appearing frozen as the shot went by. More often it left Fleury unable to get back to his post if that shot went wide and bounced off the end boards, or a rebound spilled back to a sharp angle. Combine that with his old tendency to make those recovery moves to a spot outside of his posts and the result was a lot of how-did-that-go-in bounces from bad angles. By moving around outside of his posts rather than staying inside and sealing the post, Fleury left himself prone to terrible looking ricochet goals off his body.
Compounding these problems was Fleury’s tendency to get more aggressive the worse things went, chasing the puck rather than his next save position, leaving himself even more distance to recover in less time and often looking frantic.
Some goalies retreat to their goal line when things go poorly. Others try to get as close to the puck as they can in the hopes it has a better chance of hitting them. Fleury always seemed to fall into the latter camp.
Fleury now plays rush chances “heels out,” meaning the back of his skates is still in touch with, or barely outside, the top of the crease. His depth on end-zone play is contained within the blue ice, often as much as a couple feet below the top of the crease, and almost never beyond the outside edges of it. The intended benefits are obvious: Fleury has to move less and can beat passes across with shorter, quicker movements to get set for the next pass or shot. He has time to rotate his hips properly before driving back to the inside of his posts – and that is his new default target under Bales – allowing him to travel laterally while still staying square to the next shot, establishing his new angle first and then adding coming out and depth if there is time and it is needed. Fleury rarely gets caught outside his posts now.
He also added a new technique to seal them off against attacks from along or below the goal line.
Instead of his old preference for using VH, Fleury is using the Reverse for more of his post integration plays. In addition to being less of a locked up, “blocking” technique than VH, the Reverse keeps more of his body between the posts rather than right on the post, providing more coverage even before pushing off that post on passes into the middle or across.
“It takes a long time to get confidence in a new thing coming in too,” Fleury, who was still using VH exclusively wen InGoal met him in the summer, said of transitioning to Reverse. “I tried it and wasn’t sure, but practicing every day and you can feel comfortable in that position.”
Add it all up and Fleury is a more controlled goalie this season, but the new style doesn’t change everything, and at the end of the day he still posted a save percentage just above league average in the regular season.
Fleury can still be overly aggressive at times, whether coming out to play a puck his coach said he should leave and causing a goal late in Game 4 against Columbus, throwing out poke checks on breakaways, or diving out to smother rebounds rather than holding his position. There is also a tendency to default to blocking saves at times when his reactive game should allow him to make more controlled stops, and that leads to rebounds and tension. He still tends to pull his torso away from the puck while making some glove and blocker saves, and comes up with some curious save selections, including this barrel roll capture in GIF form by InGoal’s Greg Balloch:
You’ll notice, however, that Fleury finished that unusual crease movement pattern into a perfect Reverse.
It may not be perfect, but it’s progress, and Fleury made a lot of that this season.
We’ll have wait to see if it’s enough to remain in Pittsburgh.