It isn't an exaggeration to call the 2013-14 season the most important of Marc-Andre Fleury's career. After he let his team down in a big way during the 2012-13 Stanley Cup playoffs, there was suddenly a question mark hanging over his head.
Every team in the NHL has played at least 20 games now, which is the unofficial quarter-way mark on the season. Now's a great time to break down MAF's performance thus far and evaluate if he's been able to right his game after getting blasted by the New York Islanders in the first round just a few months ago.
Consistency of Performance: A-
For the most part, Fleury has done his best to keep the Penguins in every game that he's started. With 18 nods out of 21 games, it's clear that he's been one of the busier goalies around. In fact, only two goalies in the NHL have played more minutes than Fleury, according to NHL.com.
That the Penguins haven't gone to someone else to start is a bit misleading, though, since Tomas Vokoun hasn't been there to spell Fleury like usual because of a scary blood-clot issue. Based on Fleury's level of play, however, it doesn't seem likely that the Pens would have given Vokoun many more starts than they've given Jeff Zatkoff to this point.
For the sake of this grade, we looked at each individual game that Fleury has played. We called games that Fleury finished with a save percentage below .900 bad, higher than .900 good and above .920 great. A .900 save percentage is almost a must to keep teams in hockey games; anything less, and squads really struggle to keep up offensively when a goalie performs that poorly.
Here's how his starts break down, then.
|Quality of Starts breakdown|
|SV% > than .920||SV% > .900||SV% < .900||Shutouts|
Out of the 18 games that Fleury has started, he's held up his end of the bargain 14 times, and Fleury keeping his save percentage above the .900 mark has proved to be very valuable to the Penguins on a nightly basis.
Out of the four games that he saw a percentage below that threshold, Pittsburgh only managed to win once.
So far, this is the most important development in Fleury's game. While this is still early on in the season, he appears to have his head on much tighter than in seasons gone by. That doesn't mean that he still doesn't have some work to do in the bounce-back department, though.
Bounce Back Ability: B-
Based on what we saw out of Fleury during the playoffs over the last few seasons, bouncing back after bad starts has been an issue. They've tended to snowball on the goalie, leading to a string of awful outings that the Penguins just can't keep up with from a goal-scoring perspective for more than a game or two.
Even the best goalies in the world let in awful goals and have awful games. What separates the great netminders from the good ones is how they bounce back after a bad outing or goal.
That hasn't been Fleury's strong point throughout his career, but he seems to be making progress this year. The bad news is that his losses are still coming in bunches, and Fleury still has a tendency to lose games in streaks.
That's not a positive development in a playoff setting. Yet a cursory look at the specific losses suggests that he hasn't been to blame for each losing stretch. Fleury didn't take his first loss of the year until October 21 against the Colorado Avalanche.
He had a .929 save percentage in that game, yet Pittsburgh's offense couldn't solve J.S. Giguere despite taking 34 shots on goal.
The loss to the Avs wasn't on Fleury, but he took a second consecutive slash in the L column in his next start four days later by allowing four goals on 30 shots to the Toronto Maple Leafs. Not exactly the kind of bounce-back performance the Penguins were looking for.
James Reimer was the first star of that game, though, so it isn't like Pittsburgh didn't try to push the envelope in the offensive zone. Fleury would win his next three contests before dropping three straight from November 6-13.
He gave up five goals to the New York Rangers November 6 but seemingly bounced back well by posting a .938 save percentage against the St. Louis Blues in his next outing. That was a tight 2-1 loss that wasn't on Fleury at all.
To this point, the Penguins haven't lost very often, so neither has Fleury. Yet there still seems to be a bit of streakiness to his play. That doesn't mean he hasn't answered the bell and come up with some big games, however.
Game-Stealing Ability: A
The Penguins don't ask Fleury to steal many games. They don't play a style like the Nashville Predators or Phoenix Coyotes where they absolutely need their netminder to have a rock-solid game to win. He has stolen a few wins for Pittsburgh, though.
With all the injuries that the Penguins have endured on the blue line, it's phenomenal that they're still one of the best teams in the NHL at preventing shots on goal. The D has still taken a few nights off, and Fleury has been there to bail them out in nearly every instance.
For the purpose of this examination, a "stolen game" is a contest in which Fleury had to make 35 or more saves. That's only happened to him twice this year, and he's won both contests.
For what it's worth, Fleury also tacked on another victory after making 34 stops and has only one loss on his record when he's been asked to make more than 30 saves.
Shootout Performance: Incomplete
Technically, the Penguins are undefeated in the shootout, but they've only had one contest go to the skills competition. Fleury stopped all three shots that he faced, but we're giving him an incomplete on the year to this point.
There's nothing wrong with finishing opponents during regulation or in OT, and the Penguins have done that quite well thus far this season.
Overall Grade: A
It's tough to imagine how things could have gone much worse for Fleury during the playoffs last season, and it's just as hard to think of a better way Pittsburgh's franchise netminder could have rebounded. Overall, he's 14th in the NHL in save percentage (.921) and seventh in goals-against average (2.00).
That's about how good he'll need to be moving forward for the Penguins to do some damage this season and in the playoffs. This team doesn't need him to steal hockey games. It just needs him to not give them away, and for the most part, Fleury hasn't given away too many contests this season.