To be honest, it can be a challenge to figure out where, exactly, Marc-Andre Fleury ranks among the NHL’s best goalies.
To his strongest proponents, his consistent winning ways and Stanley Cup ring should be all that’s needed to prove that he’s among the cream of the crop. Others look at his solid-but-not-amazing stats* and occasional puckhandling gaffes and see a $5 million goalie propped up by a great system and timely scoring.
Fleury the workhorse
However you feel about “The Flower,” let there be no doubt that the Penguins lean on him heavily. The National Post’s Michael Traikos points out that Fleury appeared in 23 consecutive games coming into tonight. (Brent Johnson finally got the nod as the Penguins are on the tail-end of back-to-back games with the Toronto Maple Leafs.)
Johnson is the sort of veteran backup that can be an under-the-radar asset – as you may recall, he carried the load when Fleury had a slow start last season – but the Penguins seem fine with the fact that “MAF” is starting to approach the Miikka Kirpusoff neighborhood when it comes to his workload.
“I love to play,” Fleury said. “I love to be in there and play in the game. But it’s a long season if you make it to the playoffs and have a long playoff run.”
Penguins coach Dan Bylsma explained that the schedule was previously conducive to a lot of starts for Fleury but admitted that the stretch run is likely to be quite different. Pittsburgh has five back-to-back sets remaining on its schedule and Bylsma indicates that Johnson should see action in a big chunk (if not all) of them.
The subtle importance of rest and good backups
That’s a good big-picture view because the post-lockout NHL hasn’t been too friendly to teams who use their No. 1 guys like the New Jersey once used Martin Brodeur (and seem primed to do, for questionable reasons).
I must admit that I roll my eyes when people use championship teams as the supposed “template” for future squads, but it is telling that the Boston Bruins and Vancouver Canucks gave their talented No. 2 guys plenty of reps last season despite employing expensive starters. Johnson might not be a sexy goalie-of-the-future like Tuukka Rask or Cory Schneider, but the Penguins would be wise to let him ease some of Fleury’s burden in the same way.
* – Fleury’s .913 save percentage is respectable, but oft-criticized Washington Capitals goalie Tomas Vokoun is ahead of him by a bit with a .915 mark, for example.