He wasn’t spectacular, but most observers of the Pittsburgh Penguins could agree on one thing about goalie Marc-Andre Fleury this postseason - he was good enough.
That may seem like a case of damning with faint praise. On the contrary, when you consider how poorly Fleury had played in the past four postseasons, his performance this spring looked downright superhuman.
Fleury’s overall .915 save percentage in 13 playoff games was a tremendous leap from where he’d been since 2009. Following Pittsburgh’s Stanley Cup victory, Fleury had posted the following playoff save percentages in succession: .891, .899, .834, .883.
If you wanted to blame a single player for the Penguins’ inability to return to the Cup final from 2010-13, you could easily point a finger in the direction of No. 29. That wasn’t the case this year, not with Fleury turning in the third-best 5-on-5 save percentage (.933) of the 2014 playoffs to date, behind recent Vezina Trophy winners Tuukka Rask (.945) and Henrik Lundqvist (.935).
But does one effective postseason erase the previous four flameouts? Probably not, although recent events seem more relevant in gauging Fleury’s potential performance in the near future. As Mike Colligan of The Hockey Writers explored in an excellent piece earlier this month, Fleury made some big physical and psychological changes after his failure in last year’s playoffs; perhaps those alterations were critical in his improved play under pressure.
Fleury is 29, which is right in the middle of the typical prime for NHL goaltenders. He also has only one year remaining on his current contract that will pay him $5 million next season. It wouldn’t be unreasonable for the Penguins to look into re-signing him for a few more years, especially if he’s willing to keep his salary in the same ballpark.
Even after making progress this season, all but the most die-hard Fleury backers have to concede he isn’t one of the NHL’s best at his position. His 2014-15 cap hit ranks 14th among league goalies according to CapGeek.com, which is appropriate for his ability level. Looking at netminders who have played 300 or more games over the past eight seasons, Fleury is 16th in cumulative save percentage.
In other words, for all his athleticism and highlight-caliber saves, Fleury essentially defines average in the NHL. That’s nothing to shrug at, but the Penguins have to decide if the goalie prospects they have under club control – Eric Hartzell, Matt Murray and Tristan Jarry – will be able to take over the crease capably if Fleury is allowed to walk next summer.
For all of the Penguins’ needs at forward, the fate of Fleury in Pittsburgh will be high on the list of tasks for whomever mans the general manager’s seat next.