Evolving Fleury Turns 30 in Yellow after Milestone Win
Marc-Andre Fleury celebrated a couple of big milestones in the past week, so it was fitting his seven-day stretch included a return to his roots with those sensational yellow pads and gloves he used to wear:
— NHL (@NHL) November 27, 2014
Fleury started last week by becoming the 31st NHL goalie to record 300th career win on Monday, Nov. 24. Fleury also became the third youngest goaltender to hit the milestone because it came four days before his 30th birthday.
At 29 years, 361 days, Fleury trailed only Martin Brodeur (29 years, 223 days) and Terry Sawchuk (29 years, 323 days) as the youngest to hit the milestone. And while it is true Fleury was the only one of the three to benefit from games being decided in a shootout rather than ending in a tie, it’s still an impressive feat, especially for a goaltender that has endured so much criticism over the past couple of seasons.
Fleury, who passed Tom Barrasso for the Penguins franchise record of 223 wins on Jan. 19, 2013, leads all active goalies in wins since 2008-09, including notables like Henrik Lundqvist and Roberto Luongo, and the only goalie with half as many wins from his 2003 NHL Draft class is Detroit’s Jimmy Howard with 163.
Of course wins are a team statistic and Fleury has played on a good one for a while now in Pittsburgh.
Fleury has also become a focal point for those Penguins playoff failures of recent years, but for all the struggles that made him an easy whipping boy it seemed pretty clear Fleury turned a corner last season, his first with a new goalie coach in Mike Bales, and appears to be continuing on a path to improved consistency this year.
As Fleury got off to a great start again this season, however, some of the focus again shifted to his work with a sports psychologist, which started two summers ago, including this piece from Sportsnet:
Of course, reacting better to adversity within a game or from game to game could also have something to do with Fleury finally having a plan on the ice, which is what Bales has given him for the first time in his career.
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, less-structured initial positioning of past seasons, and it was 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 2013-14 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.”For the most part Fleury was fighting those instincts well during the 2014 playoffs, which ended 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) but ahead of Sergei Bobrovsky (.929), Corey Crawford (.928) and Jonathan Quick (.916), and a huge improvement from Fleury’s even-strength save percentages of .885 in 2013 and .886 in 2012.
Thats not to say there isn’t still room for more improvement for a goalie that won the Stanley Cup in 2009.
Fleury did chase outside his crease a couple of times during last year’s playoffs, but despite some calls during national broadcasts of a “meltdown” during the first round against Columbus, it never materialized like it did the previous two years. That’s because Fleury adjusted how and where he played. And when things did get off the rails, he went back to those positions, rather than chasing the puck.
If there were defining characteristics of his 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 Quick with the Los Angeles Kings or even 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 recoveries 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.But Fleury now plays most 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. Fleury also added a new technique to seal his posts against attacks from along or below the goal line. Instead of his old preference for VH, Fleury nose uses Reverse for more post integration plays.
“It takes a long time to get confidence in a new thing coming in too,” Fleury, who was still using VH exclusively when InGoal met him in the summer of 2013, 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 now, but the new style doesn’t change everything.
Fleury can still be overly aggressive at times, 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. And he still tends to pull his torso away from the puck while making some glove and blocker saves.
He may not be perfect – what goalie is? – but Fleury is still making progress.
Given that progress and how quickly he reached 300 wins despite starting his career at age 18 behind some horrible pre-Sidney Crosby Penguins teams, it’s a mistake to dismiss Fleury’s chances of climbing to the top of that all-time list. The odds of catching Brodeur at 688 wins (and maybe counting again soon) may seem slim, but at his current rate Fleury will be top-25 by the end of this season and chasing Sawchuk for fifth before he turns 35.