If you saw my article last week about the Fenwick stat and how it applies to the Penguins, you know I’m not afraid of using metrics to support an argument.
Much of the joy I derive from watching sports is trying to figure out what’s happening and why. Because of that, I’m willing to look for new and different ways of measuring value, which makes the current innovative atmosphere around statistics very intriguing to me.
One relatively new hockey-related concept that I buy into is the idea that the number of shots a team takes has a strong correlation to puck possession and, thus, winning games. As described at the above link, Fenwick (and its older brother Corsi) measures the differential of shots taken to shots allowed, boiling it down to a 60-minute rate.
Unfortunately, in a true team sport like hockey, it’s problematic to try to distill a team rate to evaluate individual players. Unlike baseball, in which a game can be boiled down to individual at-bats, hockey is fluid, with skaters jumping on and off the ice and whistles only occasionally interrupting the flow of play.
To illustrate this, Pascal Dupuis and Chris Kunitz have some of the best individual Corsi rates on the Penguins, but it’s difficult to determine how much of that is directly attributable to skating alongside Sidney Crosby, whose 16.10 Corsi leads the team.
This problem is just as pronounced when it comes to goaltenders. As of the present day, we are still limited to rudimentary stats like save percentage and, God help us, goals-against average. The issue with these metrics is their lack of context: they don’t tell us which goalies are truly adding value and which are putting up pretty numbers because their teams restrict opponents to mostly low-percentage shots.
The reputation of Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury has taken a few hits because of his save percentage over the years. The 28-year-old has a .910 career mark, which isn’t among the NHL’s best over the past decade.
However, since establishing himself as Pittsburgh’s No. 1 netminder in 2006-07, Fleury’s save percentage has been above the league average in four of six seasons. The two times he fell below the line were his admittedly sub-par 2009-10 (.905) and last season, when Fleury’s .913 was just one point shy of the NHL mean.
Judging from that statistical baseline, Fleury is, at the very least, an asset to the Penguins. But while I’ll allow that he’s not in the class of the Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist or Nashville’s Pekka Rinne, I’d argue he’s not far behind that top tier.
My conviction on the subject comes from years of watching Fleury play. I’m usually hesitant to buy into the “just watch the game” method of thinking, but in goaltending it’s all about context. The difference between facing a two-on-one rush and a routine shot from the point is vast, and save percentage is ill-equipped to account for that.
It’s telling that Fleury recorded his best full-season save percentage in 2010-11, when Crosby and Evgeni Malkin both sustained season-ending injuries and the Penguins played their most conservative hockey to date under coach Dan Bylsma. With the team in front of him enhancing its defensive focus in the second half of the season, Fleury stopped nearly 92 percent of shots faced.
Finding a way to accurately measure scoring-chance quality will be labor-intensive. Baseball has a similar conundrum with quantifying defense, as proprietary metrics like Ultimate Zone Rating and Fielding Runs Above Average often have widely varying perspectives on the same player’s ability.
Until the hockey community has an all-encompassing goalie-value tool at its disposal, simple observation will be a major part of judging netminders. Unfortunately, that type of approach is liable to be swayed by emotion and bias, such as the type that arises when games reach postseason pitch.
I believe Fleury’s so-so standing in the hockey world is more because of recent playoff memories than anything else. While the Penguins’ 2011 first-round loss to Tampa Bay isn’t on Fleury, his substandard play in 2010 (vs. Montreal) and 2012 (vs. Philadelphia) is a key reason why Bylsma’s team hasn’t made a serious springtime run since 2009.
If we’re going to paint with a small-sample brush, Fleury’s impressive playoff efforts in 2008 and ’09 must be factored in, too. The pressure is on for another Stanley Cup in Pittsburgh, but the upshot is that sharp play from Fleury can easily result in a title, and a reboot of his public perception.
As long as the Penguins retain their current level of offensive talent, they will not be a defensive juggernaut. Fleury’s athleticism is well-tailored for his current supporting role, in which his teammates possess the puck most of the time, then lean on him to make an above-average save or two when their defense lapses.
Unless the Penguins go through a philosophical change, Fleury will never have eye-popping traditional statistics. However, that doesn’t mean he isn’t one of hockey’s best at his position.