Goaltending at center of Golden Knights’ slump

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Chicago Blackhawks and Vegas Golden Knights. Coverage begins at 10 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Vegas Golden Knights will go as far as Marc-Andre Fleury is able to take them this season.

Not only in terms of how he plays, but also how often he plays.

It has been a very simple recipe for the team dating back to the start of last season, and it goes exactly like this: When Fleury plays, and plays well, the Golden Knights look like a legitimate Stanley Cup contender that can stack up against any team in the league.

When he does not play, or when he does not play well, the team has had virtually no chance of winning on any given night.

They have a deep group of forwards with impact players carrying the top lines, their defense may not have any potential Norris Trophy winners on it, but it is a capable group, and in general the team plays a winning brand of hockey.

Even so, goaltending is the make-or-break position on this team and it all relies on the health and play of Fleury.

Their recent 10-game stretch entering their Wednesday Night Hockey matchup with the Chicago Blackhawks is a perfect illustration of the importance of their starting goalie. They have won just three of those games, and even though the offense has cooled off and had its own share of struggles, the goaltending has not always given them a chance to win. They have consistently fallen behind early, often times by several goals, and have had to play catch-up almost every night.

Fleury has slumped a little recently (an .897 save percentage in his past six starts), but the bigger problem remains the fact the team has absolutely no one behind him that can give him some regular time off and give the team a chance to win. On this most recent 10-game stretch backups Malcolm Subban and Oscar Dansk have started four games, all of them losses, and allowed 15 goals with a combined save percentage of just .881. Not good enough.

[COVERAGE OF BLACKHAWKS-GOLDEN KNIGHTS BEGINS AT 10 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

For the season, the Golden Knights are one of just four teams that have yet to get a win from their backup goalies, and dating back to the start of last season they are just 8-14-4 in games that Fleury has not started. Their backups have a combined save percentage of .896, which is a completely terrible number even as far as backup goalies are concerned.

This is a potentially big problem for two reasons.

First, it means when Fleury does not play the Golden Knights points percentage dips down to lottery team levels. Even if you assume that Fleury is able to play 60-65 games that is still 20 or so games where they are  just giving away points in the standings, something that could force them to play Fleury more than they need to. Or should.

That leads to the second problem, which is Fleury’s workload and how many games the Golden Knights actually want him to play during the season. For as durable as he has been throughout his career (and still is; keep in mind he played 61 games a year ago), you have to consider the reality that he turns 35 years old later this month. In the history of the league there have only been seven instances of a goalie in their age 35 season (or older) starting more than 60 games in a season, and only two of them — both Martin Brodeur seasons — ended up making the playoffs that year. In both cases he completely bombed in the opening round, losing each series in five games.

Even when taking age out of the equation the sweet spot for No. 1 goalies in today’s NHL seems to be somewhere around the 55-60 game mark. It cuts down the injury risk and keeps the starter fresh for the grind that is the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Maybe it’s a coincidence, but Fleury’s three best postseasons — when looking at individual success and length of postseason run — came in years where he started 35, 38, and 46 games during the regular season, while his three worst performances came in years where he started more than 65 games. Granted, no one is going to suggest his playing time should be limited to 35 or 40 games, but keeping him under 60 might be very beneficial in the long run. The problem is Golden Knights don’t have anyone on their roster behind Fleury that should inspire enough confidence to give them 25-30 starts without seriously hurting the team’s spot in the standings and playoff race.

It is a big problem and one that needs to be addressed because they can’t rely on Fleury to play every night, and their current backups haven’t proven to be good enough to give him a break.

Kathryn Tappen will host Wednesday’s coverage on NHL Live alongside analysts Keith Jones and Patrick Sharp and NHL insider Darren Dreger. John Forslund, Eddie Olczyk  and Pierre McGuire will have the call from T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Nev.

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.