May 4, 2013 1 Comment
As I write this, the Penguins have just lost a somewhat-shocking Game 2 of the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs to the New York Islanders. Most pundits dismissed the Isles as a minor-league club following the Pens’ 5-0 drubbing of the Isles in Game 1. However, these same “analysts” have suddenly reversed-course after the Isles outplayed, and dare I say out-competed, the Penguins for most of Game 2.
As usual, the Great Unwashed Masses want to heap all the blame onto one player. Very few outside observers can just say, “the Penguins underestimated the Islanders, and got out-played,” or anything similarly rational. It’s much easier to just single-out one player, and it’s worth noting that this tendency extends even to “insightful” television analysts like Jeremy Roenick and Mike Milbury. Nothing as respectable as a guy ripping the prohibitive Hart Trophy Winner to shreds 12 games into the season. But I digress…
I had to write an article back in Summer 2011 defending future Hart Trophy/Art Ross Winner Evgeni Malkin because he had completed two back-to-back, injury-riddled seasons in 2009-10 and 2010-11. I had to remind everyone that Geno basically destroyed his own body helping to carry the Pens to consecutive Stanley Cup Finals, but the average middle-aged sports writer or circle-jerking bandwagoner wanted to blame his “underwhelming” stats on laziness and his Russian heritage and upbringing. Obviously, they were right, and Geno is a major disappointment.
Following this, I made a somewhat-uninspired defense of Paul Martin after the unintelligent population of Penguins’ fans started piling on him. Following two seasons of underwhelming play, Paul, AKA Snake, has since become a critical member of the Penguins’ Defensive Corps, logging huge minutes and providing competent, heady all-around play in 2013. Snake has become integral, and it’s worth repeating that people (including myself) were playing Xbox GM throughout the Lockout trying to expedite his departure from the team.
This year, homegrown Penguin and 2009 Cup Champion Tyler Kennedy has drawn much of the team’s ire, and become the de facto Whipping- Boy, mostly thanks to poor statistics and his on-going problems with shot-selection. Whipping-Boy TK has recently been sent to the Press Box in lieu of Golden Boy Beau Bennett, so the bandwagon crowd has decided to circle back to a long-time target: Penguins’ Starting Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, AKA Flower.
This nonsense started last year after the Pens were bounced by the Flyers in the 1st Round of the 2012 Playoffs. Very few people wanted to blame the horrifically-undisciplined play of the team in front of Flower, just as no one wanted to acknowledge that Flower was fried from playing an absurd 23 consecutive games down the stretch due to a lack of alternatives. Everyone just wants to be the drunken, uneducated uncle at the pee-wee hockey game, blaming the goaltender for each and every one of the team’s shortcomings. It’s childish and moronic.
I am not a sophisticated NHL Analyst. But I have played Hockey for 20 years, and I love and respect the game. To me, it does not take a genius to point out that one player rarely makes or breaks a game, let alone a Season or a Playoff Series.
I am going to do my best not to make this an argument based on statistics, because I have done that before. Statistics bear out that Flower is not one of the League’s Top 5 Goaltenders, but he falls right in the middle of the second group of Goalies behind the League’s Elite. The statistics I’m referring to are mainly Save Percentage and Advanced Metrics in a similar vein, because if we were talking about Wins or Goals Against Average, I would have no need to write an article such as this defending Flower.
Flower finished within Tenth among all Goaltenders who played at least 30 games in the Advanced Statistic “Goals Against On Ice Per 60 Minutes“. If you look at the other names on the list, the GAOI/60 statistic is a pretty accurate gauge of how well an NHL Starting Goaltender played in 2013. Columbus Blue Jackets Goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky led all Goaltenders in this stat, and is the presumptive Vezina Trophy Winner.
Flower finished below Bobrovsky and the consistently Elite Goaltenders of the League (Hank Lundqvist, Pekka Rinne), as well as up-and-comers on Defensively-Strong or Puck-Possession teams like Tuuka Rask, Antti Niemi, and Jimmy Howard.
(UPDATE: 5/4/13 – 10:05 PM – As I write this, the Ducks are up on the Red Wings 4-0 with about four minutes to play in the game. No one would think about replacing Jimmy Howard with Backup Goaltender Jonas Gustafsson for Game 4, because this game would be 8-0 without Howard in net. My point is that sometimes the breaks do not go a certain team’s way, and Top-10 Goaltenders like Flower and Jimmy Howard are rarely the source of the problem.)
However, Flower was very comparable statistically to the #8-#14 Goaltenders on the list, including Islanders Goalie Evgeni Nabokov, who finished at Number 13 on this list. In my mind, when combined with his Win totals and somewhat-inconsistent and occasionally-lax Defensive Support, this firmly entrenches Flower as a Top-10 Goaltender statistically. At his absolute worst, he’s still among the top half of the League’s Starting Goalies.
It’s amazing how a Goaltender’s Stats go up when he plays on a more defensively-responsible team. When Michel Therrien was forcing the Pens to sit-back and run a half-Trap, Flower was a statistical Top-5 Goaltender. Ditto in 2010-11, when Coach Disco was forced to move to a defensive shell to offset the losses of Sid and Geno to injury.
This “phenomenon” is obviously not solely tied to Flower. Witness Philadelphia Flyers’ Goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov’s mostly-unsuccessful move from Tight, Trap-Happy Phoenix to fast-and-loose Philly, or Mike Smith’s reversal from Sieve to Star upon moving to the Coyotes’ Defensively-Responsible system from Defensively-Clueless Tampa Bay. Witness the Boston Bruins’ seamless transition from All-World Goaltender Tim Thomas to Tuukka Rask, and note that both Goaltenders played behind the defensively-stout Bruins and Slovakian Giant Zdeno Chara.
It’s really simple: when the team makes a commitment to Defense – a real commitment, not a “responsible for an Offensive Juggernaut” commitment – the Goaltender’s stats jump up.
I cite Hank Lundqvist of the New York Rangers as Exhibit A. This is not to take anything away from Hank, but if the Penguins huddled around Flower and dove in front of shots like the Rangers do, Flower’s Save Percentage might jump a few points. Instead, Flower sees a ton of Odd-Man Breaks and High-Quality Scoring Chances because most of the Penguins are up-ice or otherwise not in ideal Defensive position.
The Penguins, and by “The Penguins” I mostly mean Sid and Geno and Deal and Tanger, want to turn every game into an Offensive Carnival and a Track Meet. I think that’s just great, but the reality is that playing Goaltender for the Pittsburgh Penguins is a unique and very difficult challenge. It has been this way for as long as I can remember, dating back to Club Mario and extending to this very day, excusing a few brief forays into Defensive Responsibility in Constantine-Ville and Therrien-Land.
Again, I am not speaking to the Stat-Heads, because they know exactly where Flower stands: somewhere between the Goaltenders of the League who are Elite Year-In and Year-Out (Hank Lundqvist, Pekka Rinne, etc.) and the Average NHL Starting Goaltender. Flower is plenty good enough to Win with, as he has proven.
With Goaltenders, the Grass is always Greener. People look at the Super-Heroics of someone like Sergei Bobrovsky in 2013, Jonathan Quick in 2012, or Tim Thomas in 2011, and wonder why their team cannot easily find Goaltending at that level. The common fan looks at the League’s best Goaltender every year, and assumes almost anyone can achieve and sustain that level of play. The same people who want to pile on Flower should take a look at what the very-comparable Quick has been up to lately.
I remind you that Roberto Luongo was the toast of the Goaltending world as recently as 2011, until he lost a seven-game Stanley Cup Final to a historically-great Tim Thomas, at which point the common perception became that Luongo was mentally-fragile. People started to selectively ignore Luongo’s history of gaudy performances in lieu (no pun) of the more even-keeled performances of battery-mate Cory Schneider, to the point where the Canucks could not trade Luongo for 40-cents-on-the-dollar this past off-season.
Luongo will be absolutely unbeatable some nights, and other nights he will get smoked. Flower is cut from a similar cloth, although it should be noted that both Goaltenders are much-more consistent than they are given credit for being. Their athleticism, flash, and knack for the spectacular is actually held against both of them.
Some people want a low-maintenance, lower-ceiling car, and some people want a low-maintenance, lower-ceiling NHL Goaltender. Flower has come a long, long way in terms of his positioning, rebound control, and recovery, but he will always be an athletic, reflex Goaltender. Some people, due to their own biases in perception, cannot handle this type of Goaltending on the team they support.
The Penguins have Won a Stanley Cup with Flower, participated in another, and will participate in future Stanley Cup Finals with Flower in net. Laying the blame for a mostly-uninspired Team Performance in Game 2 solely on Flower is the sort of self-castigating, delusional paranoia I would generally associate with a beaten-down fan base like Vancouver or Philly.
As I wrote at this time last year, there are going to be Highs and Lows in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Take a Breath, and stop overreacting over one bad-bounce goal when your team got out-shot 42-33, failed to convert a four-minute Power Play, and generally did not battle at the same level as their opposition.