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.

Lightning add size with dirt-cheap Maroon deal

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After the Tampa Bay Lightning suffered a humiliating playoff sweep following a historically great regular season, some argued that they were pushed around. That narrative about size only, well, grew when the St. Louis Blues won their first-ever Stanley Cup during the same postseason.

A lot of those size-related arguments were worthy of an eyeroll, but the Lightning beefed up for such a cheap price that it really seems like a no-brainer.

How else would you describe signing Patrick Maroon for one year at the measly cost of $900K?

For Maroon, the decision must come with some mixed feelings.

On one hand, the 31-year-old now has a strong chance to win championships in back-to-back seasons. Even after that sweep at the hands of the Blue Jackets, the Lightning rank as one of the favorites going into 2019-20.

Yet, it has to be frustrating for Maroon. He accepted a cheap one-year, $1.75M contract with the Blues after experiencing a tepid market during the 2018 summer, only to see this happen again.

With just 10 goals and 28 points in 74 regular-season games and a modest seven points in 26 games during the Blues’ Stanley Cup run, it’s clear that Maroon didn’t set the world on fire. Perhaps the Micheal Ferlands of the world were enough for those seeking size?

Maroon is a fine player, mind you, but his struggles to find much free agent interest during the last two years show the limits of any size obsession. It seems like that’s a nice luxury to have, and now the Lightning added a bit of that element.

By landing Maroon for a dirt-cheap price and also bolstering their defense with Kevin Shattenkirk after his Rangers buyout, the Lightning have replaced some of what they’ve lost in saying goodbye to the likes of J.T. Miller and Anton Stralman. This also leaves a reasonable amount of space to work with to re-sign Brayden Point, although the star RFA might not appreciate how much he gets squeezed.

It’s tough not to feel a little bit bad for Maroon, although he’ll probably be happy enough if he’s spending another day with the Stanley Cup next summer — preferably with a little more term and/or money on his next contract.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Three fuzzy questions for the Sharks

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the San Jose Sharks.

Let’s bat around three questions for the Sharks in 2019-20.

1. What’s going on with Joe Thornton?

Every indication is that Thornton is coming back for next season, and that he’ll do so for the Sharks.

But … you know, it’s getting close to September, and he hasn’t signed yet. And Thornton is 40. So it’s fair to wonder until he actually signs on the dotted line for whatever total. Maybe that’s part of the holdup; Cap Friendly estimates the Sharks’ space at about $4.6M with 21 roster spots covered, while Thornton made $5M last season.

With the other Joe (Pavelski) now in Dallas, the Sharks have to hope that Thornton is indeed coming back.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Under Pressure | X-factor]

Thornton was impressive last season, managing 51 points in 73 games despite being limited (wisely) to an average ice time of 15:33 per game. His possession stats were outstanding for any age. It’s not only interesting to see if Thornton comes back (and for how much), but also how the Sharks use him. Do they need more from him, or do they keep him at a modified role to preserve the well-traveled veteran?

Actually, that transitions to our second question …

2. Will the veterans avoid the aging curve?

Thornton is the most extreme example of a veteran being asked to play at an advanced age, but with 30 being a point of no return for other players (see: Lucic, Milan), it’s worth wondering if other Sharks can maintain their high levels of play.

Erik Karlsson isn’t quite at that age, but close at 29, and carrying a lot of mileage and pressure. Brent Burns is 34, which is kind of staggering. Logan Couture is also older than some might expect at 30. Martin Jones is 29, Marc-Edouard Vlasic isn’t quite an Olympian any longer at 32, and even Evander Kane is 28.

The Sharks were wise enough to let Joe Pavelski go this summer, which was for the best with their cap constraints, and also he’s in the “somehow” group at 35. Even so, there are quite a few prominent Sharks who could start to decline (or, in some cases, see their abilities plummet … again, see: Milan Lucic). If enough do, this team may be scratching and clawing just to make the playoffs, or worse.

Unless …

3. Can the young guns step up?

Whether Thornton returns or not, Sharks will need more from younger players in a few positions. Pavelski’s gone, as are defensemen Justin Braun and Joakim Ryan.

In some cases, it’s actually easy to see the Sharks making seamless transitions. Timo Meier is a rising star, and he’s done most of his damage without power play time, so expect bigger things with more chances. Tomas Hertl took another step forward as a presence in his own right, while Kevin Labanc seems like a gem, and will have every bit of motivation to cash in after accepting a baffling one-year, $1M contract.

The Sharks will probably need more than just budding stars to confirm their star statuses. They may also need one or more of Dylan Gambrell, Alex True, and Antti Suomela to replace what’s been lost.

They’ll also need head coach Peter DeBoer to tie it all together. Can he integrate younger players, get veterans the right mix between reps and rest, and make it all work enough for the Sharks to remain at a high level, if not climb a bit more? On paper, this looks like a contending team once again, but things can change quickly in the NHL.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Erik Karlsson faces big pressure to live up to new contract

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the San Jose Sharks.

In some ways, the pressure is off Erik Karlsson.

Certainly, he can breathe a sigh of relief after the roller coaster that was last season.

Karlsson had to slug through most of the 2018 offseason surveying the wreckage of the Ottawa Senators, only being traded to the San Jose Sharks in September before the 2018-19 training camp. From there, he had to get used to new teammates and new surroundings, settling into a culture that’s already been established.

Oh yeah, he also had to hope that his body would hold up during a crucial contract year, which was a pretty significant gamble.

Now Karlsson is settled in. His contract is mammoth: eight years, $92 million, which means his AAV is $11.5M. To start, Karlsson receives $11M in a signing bonus, plus another $3.5M in base salary. That money, combined with previous career earnings, means that his children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren, and so on should be taken care of. Karlsson even has a no-movement clause through the full extent of that contract, which runs through 2026-27.

So, from an existential standpoint, the heat is off.

But for a player whose critics have piled up along with his individual trophies, this contract also brings with it an exceptional portion of pressure.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Three questions | X-factor]

Karlsson, 29, is at an unclear fork in the road. Was 2018-19 a physical blip on the radar – did he just merely put off surgery, and he’ll be good as new? – or is his body breaking down after all of those years of carrying the Senators, not to mention after suffering injuries freakish enough that Eugene Melnyk wanted to order crime scene investigations? Will Karlsson be hobbled for the rest of his career, or will we at least be treated to a few more runs of Karlsson at his best, which ranks as some of the best work we’ve seen from a modern defenseman?

The Sharks are certainly paying him to play that role.

Karlsson carries the highest cap hit of any defenseman, easily outranking fellow Sharks star defenseman Brent Burns‘ $8M, which isn’t exactly cheap either. The closest comparable is Drew Doughty‘s, who received the same basic deal, only his kicked in a year earlier, at slightly lower rate of $11M.

The Doughty – Karlsson comparisons can be thorny, especially if you play into Doughty’s side, noting the two Stanley Cup rings and low-mistake peak, arguments Doughty hasn’t been shy to lean into himself. Conversely, you could use Doughty’s immense struggles in 2018-19, merely the first year of his current deal, and note that big defenseman contracts can become regrettable almost from day one.

As forward-thinking as the Sharks have been in letting an aging Joe Pavelski walk (and Patrick Marleau before him), San Jose still seems to be in something of a “win-now,” or at least soon, mode.

Burns is, somehow, 34 already. Marc-Edouard Vlasic‘s lost many steps at 32. Logan Couture is 30, and Erik Karlsson himself is 29. As fantastic and in-their-primes as Timo Meier and Tomas Hertl are, the majority of the Sharks’ core players are guys who could hit their aging curves, hard. And maybe soon.

A possibly closing window, and all that money, puts the pressure on Karlsson. If the Sharks fall short, people will probably blame Karlsson much like they blamed Marleau and Joe Thornton back during their peak years with San Jose. Even if it’s really about goaltending.

Karlsson isn’t a stranger to pressure. He was the top guy in Ottawa, and someone whose mistakes were amplified for those who wanted to elevate a Doughty-type Norris usurper. Yet, even during those times, expectations weren’t often all that high for Senators teams — how often were they labeled underdogs? — and Karlsson was a relative bargain at his previous $6.5M cap hit.

Now he’s the most expensive defenseman in the NHL, and only $1M cheaper than Connor McDavid, the highest-paid player in the entire league.

Combine all of those factors, and you’ll see that Karlsson is under serious pressure in 2019-20.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Sharks will sink or swim based on goaltending

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the San Jose Sharks.

Sometimes, when you get a little time and separation from a narrative, you realize that maybe the thing people were obsessed about wasn’t really a big deal.

Well, Martin Jones‘ 2018-19 season doesn’t exactly age like fine wine. The output is far more vinegar.

With Aaron Dell not faring well either, and the Sharks losing a key piece like Joe Pavelski during the offseason, the Sharks’ goaltending is an X-factor for 2019-20. Simply put, as talented as this team is, they might not be able to lug a dismal duo of goalies in the same way once again.

Because, all things considered, it’s surprising that the Sharks got as far as the 2019 Western Conference Final with that goalie duo.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Under Pressure | Three questions]

Jones suffered through his first season below a 90 save percentage, managing a terrible .896 mark through 64 regular-season games. The 29-year-old had his moments during the playoffs; unfortunately, most of those moments were bad, as his save percentage barely climbed (.898) over 20 turbulent postseason contests.

The Sharks didn’t get much relief when they brought in their relief pitcher, either. Dell managed worse numbers during the regular season (.886) and playoffs (.861), making you wonder how barren the Sharks’ goalie prospect pipeline could be. After all, it must have been frightening to imagine it getting much worse than those two.

And, as much as people seem to strain to blame Erik Karlsson for any goalies’ woes, it’s pretty tough to pin this on the Sharks’ defense.

About the most generous thing you could say is that the Sharks were close to the middle of the pack when it came to giving up high-danger scoring chances. Otherwise, the Sharks were dominant by virtually all of Natural Stat Trick’s even-strength defensive metrics, allowing the fewest shots against and the fourth lowest scoring chances against, among other impressive numbers.

The Sharks managing to be so stingy while also being a dominant force on offense is a testament to the talent GM Doug Wilson assembled, but again, Pavelski’s departure stands as a reminder that there could be some growing pains, particularly at the start of 2019-20.

With that in mind, the Sharks would sure love to get a few more stops after dealing with the worst team save percentage of last season.

The bad news is that, frankly, Jones hasn’t really stood out (in a good way, at least) as a starting goalie for much of his career. Having $5.75 million per year through 2023-24 invested in Jones is downright alarming when you consider his unimpressive career .912 save percentage, even if you give him some kudos for strong playoff work before 2018-19.

It was easy to forget in the chaos of San Jose’s Game 7 rally against the Golden Knights, but Jones allowing soft goals like these often sank the Sharks as much as any opponent:

The better news is that last season was unusual for Jones.

Consider that, during his three previous seasons as the Sharks’ workhorse from 2015-16 through 2017-18, Jones went 102-68-16 with a far more palatable .915 save percentage. That merely tied Jones for 22nd place among goalies who played at least 50 games during that span, but it tied Jones with the likes of Carey Price and Henrik Lundqvist.

The Sharks had often been accustomed to better play from Dell, too, including a strong rookie year where Dell managed a .931 save percentage during 20 games in 2016-17.

It’s up to Jones and Dell to perform at a higher level in 2019-20, and for head coach Peter DeBoer to determine if there are any structural issues that need fixing.

As powerful as last year’s Sharks could be, next season’s version could have an even higher ceiling if they even get league-average goaltending, making Jones (and their goalies) a big X-factor.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.