Golden Knights no longer being saved by Marc-Andre Fleury

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Goaltending is hockey’s great equalizer, and it can also totally screw with our interpretation of what is happening on the ice in any given game, series, or season.

It can make us think mediocre teams are better than they actually are.

It can make us think great teams are worse than they actually are. It can make us think we are seeing something that we are not actually seeing.

Sometimes your great defensive team that has bought into sacrificing and selling out to play a stifling brand of hockey is just a bad hockey team that gets stuck in its own zone all night and has a great goalie. Sometimes your team of underachievers that never have what it takes to win when it counts and needs some sort of a culture change is just a team that is getting sub-par goaltending. 

This, of course, is not always the case. Sometimes there really are great defensive teams independent of their goalie. Sometimes teams do need to make changes beyond the goalie to break through the wall and win. But goaltending messes with us a lot.

This brings us to the story of Marc-Andre Fleury and the Vegas Golden Knights.

Through the first three rounds of the 2018 Stanley Cup playoffs Fleury had seemingly built a brick wall around his net and was in the process of authoring one of the great postseason goaltending performances in NHL history. He was not only the leader in the Conn Smythe Trophy race, but he seemed to have a pretty strong case to pull a Jean-Sebastian Giguere and potentially win the award even if his team lost. He was playing the best hockey of his life and was one of the driving forces behind one of the most stunning stories in professional sports history.

All of it is still true. All of those wins in the first three rounds still happened. He still made all of those saves. It all counts. No matter what happens the rest of the way in this series it is going to be a postseason run for the ages.

Eventually, though, there was going to come a point where he was no longer going to stop 95 percent of the shots he faced because no goalie is ever going to maintain that level of play all the time. The regression monster eventually comes for every hot streak and it can be ruthless depending on the timing. The only question for Fleury was whether or not it was going to come in the Stanley Cup Final or if it was going to come next season.

Through the first four games against the Washington Capitals it has become strikingly obvious that it has come now. The numbers in this series for Fleury are not kind. Through the first four games Fleury has already allowed 16 goals on 103 shots for a save percentage of only .845, a dramatic fall from the .946 mark he had in the first three rounds.

There are a couple of ways to look at this.

On one hand, you could look at it as NHL seasons being full of hot streaks and cold streaks and Fleury, after playing a white-hot level for the first 15 games of the playoffs, was due to hit a valley and has simply not played as well.

Or you could look at it as the team around him has played significantly worse against a great team and has left him out on an island on far too many occasions, failing to give him anywhere near enough help.

The latter point seems to be the popular approach here. Following Vegas’ Game 4 loss in Washington, a night where Fleury gave up six goals in what the Golden Knights thought was a pretty strong showing on their part, coach Gerard Gallant was asked if he ever gave any consideration to lifting Fleury.

“No. Never,” said Gallant. “I think at least five of the six goals they had wide open nets, nothing he could do.”

On Tuesday he reenforced his stance that the players around his goalie need to be better

“Play better defensively,” said Gallant. “There’s too many guys staring at the puck carrier, and we’re leaving the back side open too much. Make sure we’re paying attention to the guys behind the puck and away from the puck. Marc will make the save on the guy shooting the puck. We’ve just got to make sure we’re taking away the passes.”

This is where things get tricky with Fleury and the Golden Knights.

Gallant is correct that his team needs to be better in a lot of ways. There have been goals in this series where Fleury did not have much of a chance. The team around its goalie does need to play better, and not just in the defensive zone, but also in the offensive zone where turnovers have been plentiful and sustained pressure has been insufficient.

But what if — and this might be a controversial take given the way this story is unfolding — the Golden Knights are playing largely the same way defensively that they did through the first three rounds and the only difference is Fleury is no longer able to consistently bail them out with mind-bending saves?

Below is a series-by-series breakdown of what Fleury has faced this postseason, including total shots on goal and “high-danger chances,” and how many of those shots he has stopped.

(These are all situations numbers — even strength, power play, penalty kill — and the high-danger data is via Natural Stat Trick.)

Notice the column on the far right? Vegas is actually giving up fewer high-danger chances in the Final than it did in the previous two rounds against the San Jose Sharks and Winnipeg Jets. Three of their 10 best individual games this postseason in terms of suppressing those sorts of chances have come in this series.

If there is a point to be made here it is this: Vegas has not played that great defensively this postseason.

How many times throughout the first three rounds (well, maybe only the past two rounds because the Los Angeles Kings were just totally incompetent and embarrassing offensively) did we talk about how Fleury made some sort of unconscious save that defied all reason and logic? How many times did the Jets talk about Fleury stealing games against them? Just because Fleury was making those saves does not mean those chances against were not happening — because they were. Overall this postseason Vegas has given up an average of 11.91 high-danger chances (all situations) per game. That is the third-worst mark of all the teams in these playoffs. That is bad.

For three rounds, Fleury stopped an obscene number of those chances.

Now he is not.

This does not necessarily mean that it is Fleury’s fault. It is more a commentary on just how great he was through the first three rounds that the Golden Knights were able to overcome it.

So why has it changed in this series?

You could look at it as an inevitability that he was due for some sort of a regression and that if you give NHL shooters enough chances they are eventually going to make you pay.

It also might have something to do with the team he and the Golden Knights are playing. As I pointed out before the start of the series the Capitals are quite familiar with Fleury given his time with the Pittsburgh Penguins, and in their two previous postseason matchups they had no issues scoring goals against him. They know him. They know the way he plays. The Capitals not only have some of the best high-end talent that the Fleury and the Golden Knights have faced this season, but they are capable of playing a brand of hockey that can take advantage of Fleury’s style of play.

Gallant pointed out how many “empty net” goals the Capitals have been able to score and his team’s need to take away passing lanes because they are giving up a lot of backdoor play type goals. Fleury is an aggressive goalie. He challenges shooters and relies significantly on his athleticism to recover and make saves. That style of play and athleticism can result in highlight reel saves that blow your mind. It can also leave him vulnerable to the type of goals the Capitals have been scoring in bunches in this series where it looks like he has no chance.

In the end there can be more than one true development here.

Yes, the Golden Knights do need to be better defensively in front of Fleury because they have not always been great defensively in this series or in these playoffs.

Yes, it is also true that Fleury is not playing quite as great as he did earlier in the playoffs.

This, again, does not mean he is to blame for the deficit they are facing. It just means he played at a ridiculous level for 15 games that probably helped push his team further in the playoffs than it otherwise would have gone with a different goaltending performance.

If they are going to comeback in this series they are probably going to have to hope he gets back to that level for three more games.

MORE:
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
• Stanley Cup Final Guide
• Stanley Cup Final schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

John Carlson gets $64M payday as Capitals lock up defenseman

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The Washington Capitals cleared salary cap space for a big reason and it paid off on Sunday as they’ve agreed to a long-term deal with defenseman John Carlson.

It’s a $64 million extension over eight years for the 28-year-old. According to Pierre LeBrun, within the details of the contract are $2 million signing bonuses that land on July 1, 2020 and July 1, 2022, a.k.a. Possible Lockout Seasons.

“John has been an exceptional and consistent player for our franchise and has blossomed into being one of the top defensemen in the NHL,” said Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan. “Defenseman like John are a rare commodity in our League and, at 28 years of age, we feel he is just entering his prime. As a right-handed defenseman, John plays in all key situations and has contributed greatly to our team’s success on the special teams. We are pleased for both parties to have come to an agreement and for him to continue his great career as a Washington Capital.”

Carlson, who would have been an unrestricted free agent on July 1, picked the right time to have a career season and lead all NHL defensemen in scoring. In playing all 82 games during the regular season, he posted career highs in goals (15), assists (53), points (68), ice time (24:47) and power play assists (28). The production continued in the playoffs with five goals and 20 points as the Capitals claimed the 2018 Stanley Cup. He would finish fifth in the Norris Trophy voting.

The Capitals and Carlson’s camp had not come to an agreement as of Sunday morning, so his agent began taking calls from other interested teams as the free agent interview period opened. MacLellan did a good job of clearing cap space for an extension, shipping Brooks Orpik and his $5.5 million cap hit to the Colorado Avalanche along with restricted free agent goaltender Philipp Grubauer on Friday.

Carlson’s priority was to remain in Washington.

“This has been my home. I’ve lived here every summer since I’ve been here,” Carlson said during locker clean out day. “This is my home base and obviously the guys that I’ve been around, the experiences we’ve had. I love the area and this is all I know.”

In other Capitals defenseman news, the team has an offer out to Carlson’s defense partner Michal Kempny, who was acquired in February from Chicago and turned into a valuable piece en route to the Cup. And then there’s Orpik, who was waived after being acquired by the Avalanche. Once his buyout from Colorado becomes official, he’ll become an unrestricted free agent, setting up the possibility of a return to Washington.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Could Capitals be on verge of losing John Carlson?

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(UPDATE: No, he’s staying. Eight-year, $64 million extension for Carlson.)

While the sweet aroma of winning the Stanley Cup isn’t likely to fade any time soon, the brief stench of the business side of hockey could once again crop up in Washington.

Already having lost Stanley Cup-winning head coach Barry Trotz last week, the Capitals could be on the verge of losing top-scoring defenseman John Carlson from the 2017-18 season as well.

Maybe.

With no deal in place to extend the skilled rearguard, Carlson’s agent, Rick Curran, said while they’re still trying to hash out a deal with the Capitals, his client, who led all NHL d-men with 68 points this past season, is going to listen to other teams after the interview period commenced at 12:00 a.m. on Sunday morning.

On Friday, Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan said a deal with Carlson was “close” to being achieved.

“Hopefully we can get it done here over the next few days. We’re really close,” he said.

But as of Sunday morning, there’s still no deal in place for the man who set a Caps franchise record for most points by a defenseman in the playoffs with 20.

MacLellan has made room for Carlson. Needing the necessary cap space to give him his raise, MacLellan dealt backup netminder Philipp Grubauer and veteran defenseman Brooks Orpik to the Colorado Avalanche — the later of which had a $5.5 million cap hit attached to him.

For now, the savings account hasn’t been touched.

For Carlson, he has earned the right to test the free agent waters, and Washington obviously hasn’t met whatever demands 28-year-old has for his new deal.

It’s important to point out, as the Associated Press’ Stephen Whyno did Sunday, that Washington is the only team that can give Carlson eight years of term in a new deal. As Whyno said, this shouldn’t be overlooked.

Losing Carlson would be a big blow, so it’s kind of surprising it’s gotten to this point from the Capitals side, although Carlson could be doing what he’s earned — looking to see if the grass is greener on the other side — and using this time as leverage in talks with Washington.

A simple formula: Player wants the team to meet demands, the team isn’t there yet, forcing the player to play hardball, in turn forcing the team’s hand, or something like that, roughly speaking.

Caps beat writer for the Washington Post Isabelle Khurshudyan wrote Sunday that despite the noise surrounding Carlson, she still expects the d-man to re-sign in the nation’s capital.

#CarlsonWatch continues for now.

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Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Hurricanes have much to do, but headed in right direction after blockbuster deal

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There’s a long way to go to rebuild the Carolina Hurricanes into a contending hockey team, but they took a nice step in the right direction on Saturday.

The hockey world has had 24 hours to digest that five-player blockbuster trade on the second day of the 2018 NHL Draft — one that included defenseman Dougie Hamilton heading to the east coast once again and defenseman Noah Hanifin heading to Cow Town.

The verdict? That we won’t know for some time yet (as with any trade in its immediate infancy), but for a Hurricanes team desperate for a sheet of ice in the playoffs, the move certainly turned their aim in that direction.

Calgary got younger with 21-year-old Hanifin and 23-year-old Elias Lindholmbut the move broke up one of the league’s premier defense pairings in the process. Carolina added one-half of that pairing, and it seems more clear that the Hurricanes — who also used their second overall selection on Andrei Svechnikov earlier in the day — got better.

Worlds like “elite defenseman,” “career-year” and “highly-touted” were all uttered to help explain the three players — Hamilton, Micheal Ferland and Adam Fox, respectively — that Carolina snatched up in Saturday’s wheeling and dealing.

Not too shabby, right? The Hurricanes got immediate help on defense and forward with a quality prospect on the backend developing (if he eventually signs).

Winning trades has been something of a foreign concept when attached to Don Waddell during his tenure as an NHL general manager. His exploits as the GM of the Atlanta Thrashers meant years of needed repair after the team moved to Winnipeg in 2011, for instance.

So Saturday’s deal was a win-win for Carolina fans, who had to fear what Waddell might do to their team after being handed the reigns earlier this year.

“We’ve gone nine years missing the playoffs… we’re going to try to change up the culture a little bit,” Waddell said from the draft. “We feel that all three pieces are going to make our hockey club better not just today but going into the future.”

The Canes received a beefy, skilled defenseman in Hamilton who’s good for 40 points a year and can play big minutes. He’s also still just 25 and comes in at a nice price point at $5.75 AAV with three years left on that deal.

With Jaccob Slavin, captain Justin Faulk, Haydn Fleury and Trevor van Riemsdyk also in that rearguard, it became all the more formidable with the arrival of Hamilton.

Hamilton seems to carry around an aura of split opinion on his ability (and personality, apparently). But his underlying numbers suggest he’s among the best defenseman in the game. Elite, even.

Carolina also acquired fellow d-man Adam Fox in the deal, a promising 20-year-old prospect who’s been showing great signs playing at Harvard in the NCAA.

And they got Micheal Ferland, a physical terror on the ice who found his scoring punch this past season with 21 goals.

(It should be noted that Bill Peters — now the coach in Calgary — coached Hanifin and Elias Lindholm in Carolina. He knows the duo like the back of his hand.)

What’s next?

This bit is critical now.

With one issue squared away, the Hurricanes can now turn to other areas that need addressing.

The futures of the aforementioned Faulk (UFA ’20) and Jeff Skinner (UFA ’19) need attention, of course. Both have been churning in the rumor mill and would likely command a nice haul in return. Keeping Faulk in that now-formidable backend might seem like a no-brainer. Or maybe not…

If Faulk is expendable, then he’d be best used in a deal that shores up Carolina’s most pressing issue — its goaltending.

Scott Darling hasn’t worked out and Cam Ward isn’t coming back.

With Philipp Grubauer going to Colorado (perhaps, in part, by design), the list of unrestricted free agent goaltenders capable of being starters is slim at best.

Carter Hutton has shown flashes, as has Anton Khudonbin (who already had one stint in Carolina). With Grubauer out of the picture, those are the two best options with UFA status

Skinner and/or Faulk could be the carrot dangled in a potential move that would see a goalie in return and Waddell told reporters in Dallas on Saturday that he intends on landing a netminder.

A trade involving either could also be used to help Carolina find a left-handed defenseman. They have a glut of right-hand shots now with the arrival Hamilton and the departure of Hanifin on the backend, so perhaps something that turns Faulk into another top LHD helps Waddell pull the trigger.

For the moment, Hurricanes fans can rest on the fact that their team got better over the weekend. And they can hope that the direction from this weekend will filter down into next when the free agency window opens up on July 1.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Liam Kirk 1st born-and-trained Brit selected in NHL draft

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DALLAS (AP) Liam Kirk has become the first player born and trained in England to be selected in the NHL draft.

The Arizona Coyotes picked the 18-year-old left wing 189th overall on Saturday with their seventh-round pick.

Kirk was home, on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean about 4,600 miles away from Dallas, when he was drafted.

The 6-foot, 161-pound Kirk played this season for Sheffield Steelers in the Elite Ice Hockey League, the highest level of competition in the United Kingdom. He had nine goals and seven assists in 52 games for the Steelers in his second season with the team.

When Kirk attended this year’s NHL scouting combine in Buffalo, he became the first player born and trained in Britain to attend that annual pre-draft event.

More AP NHL: http://www.apnews.com/tags/NHLhockey