Fleury got extended recently and it's generated a lot of commentary. I don't want to repeat what's already been said, but I hope to make two points that I don't think have been discussed. The first deals with what our baseline should be when judging Fleury's deal. The second examines whether the Penguins could put together a good season even if they traded Fleury and got poor goaltending in return.
I have seen a few folks talk about Fleury's extension in a neutral light by referencing that it isn't crippling. Other variants of this argument exist but it's basically saying "things could have been worse, so don't be too upset or get that worked up." But I don't think crippling is the right baseline. Even if we think about the worst contracts in the NHL--David Clarkson and Brooks Orpik come to mind--those deals don't appear crippling. If you give me $70M in cap space and say that I have to pay one of those guys 5.5M, I'd certainly be upset but I can still build a very competitive team around them.
Look at the Capitals this year. They're paying Orpik all that money and otherwise probably not dressing a fully optimal lineup. But they've got the fourth best Score-Adusted Fenwick in the NHL (as of Thursday night). Is there really any single player that has a contract so big or so immovable that you can say that individual is actually crippling his team? I have trouble identifying even one.
So if we don't evaluate this deal by whether it's crippling, how do we do so? One way is to look at this conract in a vacuum, where you end up with the fact that you're paying nearly 6M for a goalie who, at best, puts up average numbers. But I think the better way to go about this is to identify the biggest overpay Fleury could have gotten on the market (worst case scenario) and figure out how much you beat that by.
If Fleury hit the open market, we can't be sure what he would get, but I don't think it's that much more than what we gave him. If GMs care about save percentage, Fleury doesn't look good. Whether looking at even strength numbers or overall save percentage, he hasn't been impressive over the last five years. The other layer to this is that I think GMs (wrongly) value playoff performance, which tends to be composed of very salient memories that stick around for a long time. If that's true, then Fleury's value drops a lot because no goalie in the league is as well known for his recent playoff gaffes. Whether that's deserved or not, GMs are undoubtedly thinking about it when it comes to evaluating Fleury. That depresses his value.
Ryan Miller hit free agency last year, so we can use him as a comparable. He got a three-year deal for 6M a year. Their numbers are below.
|5v5 sv% 2009-14||Overall sv% 2009-14|
This says a lot. By the numbers, Ryan Miller is a better goalie than Marc-Andre Fleury. And I think he's got better aesthetics too. He played on a much crappier team; he doesn't have historic playoff meltdowns attached to his name; and he got to be an American hero in the 2010 Olympics as he nearly helped the US beat Canada. Those shouldn't really matter, but I have no doubt that they do to the Hockey Experts™ and GMs who run NHL teams.
Despite better numbers and a better resume, Miller only got 250K more than Fleury on the open market, and actually got a shorter term. I think it's reasonable for an outside observer to look at this and say the Penguins gave Fleury the max that he would have received as a free agent, and might have even overpaid.
The only objection that I can think of is age. Miller is 34 and Fleury is 29. That's fair, but I think you can say that any difference there is washed out by Miller's better numbers and better superficial value. So if we shouldn't judge Fleury's deal based on whether it's crippling, looking to what he could have scored on the open market means the Penguins got a very small discount. Which means this deal was pretty close to worst case scenario.
Replacing Fleury But Getting Poor Performance
The biggest justification I've seen for Fleury's contract has been some variant of "who do you replace him with?" or "the Penguins were right to pay for stable, consistent, average goaltending." I think the risk of playing a goalie with a lower salary is overblown.
But let's assume the worst. Assume the Penguins trade Fleury and replace him with two guys who combine to put up really bad numbers. Like league-worst starting goalie bad numbers. Ondrej Pavelec bad numbers. What I'm getting at is a goalie putting up a .905 save percentage throughout the course of the year, which is bad enough to doom almost any team.
What about the Penguins? Could they overcome getting the worst goaltending in the league? We know the answer is yes. I can be certain because we got to run this little experiment in 2009-2010, when Marc-Andre Fleury finished the year with an overall save percentage of .905 in 67 games played. That would seem to be crippling, but the Penguins still made the playoffs that year, finishing fourth in the East with 101 points and clearing the playoff point threshold by 14 points. For those wondering if the backup provided elite numbers in support, he didn't. Brent Johnson finished the year with a .906 save percentage.
How did the Penguins deal with this? By finishing with the second-best Fenwick Close that year. They also played good defense by limiting their shots against per 60 to the fourth-fewest in the league in score-close situations. The Penguins can absolutely replicate those numbers again. When healthy last year, the Penguins had a very similar possession rate, and so far this year, they look to be controlling play very well. I mean, we had Billy Guerin at 39 years old on our first line in 2009-2010, and we were still able to make the playoffs with fourteen points to spare.
I think the Penguins are probably a better team this year than the team they had in 2010, and with the cap savings from investing in cheap goalies, we could be even better. So even assuming that everything falls apart and we get .905 goaltending over the course of the year, that's far from the end of the world. Replacing Fleury with economic options shouldn't be considered an enormous risk.