Stop apologizing for that terrible Marc-Andre Fleury contract (Trending Topics)

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Stop apologizing for that terrible Marc-Andre Fleury contract (Trending Topics)
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When the Penguins' four-year, $23 million extension for Marc-Andre Fleury was announced on Wednesday, the hockey world quickly divided itself into two camps. First, there was the, “Well, they had to do it and it's fine, I guess,” camp. Second, there was the, “Hahaha, what?” camp. There wasn't really much of a statistically significant, “This is a good deal camp.”

But what's funny is that even that first camp, the one that ostensibly supported the deal because of Pittsburgh's perceived lack of better options, still have to register their defense of it with more buts than a Sir Mix-A-Lot video. Only the most ardent Penguins fanboys, those who would cite his wins total as a reason to keep Fleury around, were the ones who thought this was an unequivocal slam-dunk great deal by a GM who won't be around to see it come to its probably-fortunate end.

So it's important to explore what those qualifiers to the Fleury contract, which isn't a very good one, because you'd need a machete to cut through the thicket in any discussion. So let's say it together, with the caveat that these are all arguments I've actually heard:

It's not a great contract, but...

...there won't be any other good UFAs on the market this summer.

This is by far the biggest concern the team had, as it stared down the possibility of the guy who's been their goalie for the last 11 seasons hitting the unrestricted free agent market.

The fact is the free agent pool this summer was shaping up to be garbage even if Fleury entered it; it's headlined by Antti Niemi, a 31-year-old goalie who has a ring but is currently perceived as being outplayed in San Jose by Alex Stalock (the .001 difference in their low-.920s save percentage suggests otherwise, but okay sure).

Fleury's agent told Craig Custance that they were perfectly aware Fleury would have pulled more in both years and AAV from the UFA market; in theory, some team looking for a starter would have given him five or six years (for a 30-year-old) and maybe $6-6.5 million (for what is widely acknowledged to be a league-average starter).

The fact is Niemi would serve as a notable upgrade over Fleury. His save percentage is three points higher over the last six seasons, but he breaks .920 just about every other year. The league in general also seems to be down on Niemi — see also: People are slagging his .923 save percentage so far this season as somehow being not-good — and maybe the cost comes in lower than people expect. Given the option, I'd rather have Niemi than Fleury, because he's better.

And the fact is that if you want to talk about it in these terms, the answer is, “A lot of guys.” Even if you whittle the list of goalies over the last six seasons to guys who have broken 200 appearances, Fleury is in the neighborhood of Brian Elliott and Ilya Bryzgalov. Guys who can essentially be picked up off the scrap heap for nothing. Likewise, Jonas Hiller just signed with Calgary for two years and just $3.5 million per, and he has historically been a better goaltender than Fleury as well.

The point is that league-average goalies are available everywhere and they shouldn't cost more than Sergei Bobrovsky or Jimmy Howard.

Moreover, it's important to keep in mind that Jim Rutherford is the GM who signed this deal, and his other recent goaltender signing, when he was still with Carolina, was for an unproven backup called Anton Khudobin. Prior to a brutal start this year, Khudobin had performed admirably for a Carolina team not accustomed to receiving good defense or goaltending.

The point is, you almost always can get guys off the scrap heap for less than $5.75 million who are just as good as Fleury, if not better. 

...who could they have traded for?

With the acknowledgement that Fleury would have been the second-best goaltender to hit the market on July 1, you have to think the Penguins might have been forced to explore the trade option if they didn't want to keep Fleury around (and they shouldn't have).

Someone who you'd think could be had for pretty cheap right now is Braden Holtby, who's currently sitting on .891 for Washington and is part of what seems to be a revolving door of goaltenders for the Caps over the last several years. Over the last five seasons, Holtby's only gotten into 114 games. Throw out the nine this year, and that's only 105. But what he did in those 105 starts, behind a caps team we can all agree has largely been a disaster, is remarkable.

Of the 40 goalies to start more than 100 games from 2010-11 to 2013-14, Holtby's save percentage (.919) is tied for 10th. Fleury's is tied for 19th. And the fact that Holtby is just barely 25 compared with Fleury's 30 suggests he's going to be an actual good goaltender for longer than Fleury is going to be an average one before time robs him of his famous athleticism.

Not that the Penguins necessarily could have or would have traded for Holtby, but the fact remains that league-average goaltenders can usually be had on the cheap even if you're buying them with assets rather than money.

(And here I'll note that if the Penguins had actually been smart and used an amnesty buyout on Fleury at any of the points during which they had such an opportunity, they could have had more time to find the right goaltender, and done so for far less than $5 million per season.)

...being league-average isn't bad.

This, in and of itself, is true. But being league-average isn't good, either. In fact, being league-average is neither good nor bad, by definition.

In any given season, the Penguins can more or less expect to neither lose nor win too many extra games because of Fleury's skillset. I consequently fail to see how that's worth $5.75 million until he's 34 years old. You shouldn't have to pay a premium for average. A burger from Five Guys doesn't cost $30 for a reason.

Plenty of statistical research has been done on Marc-Andre Fleury's career because he's such a fascinating case of the overvaluation of mediocre talent, and one of those studies last season found that over the course of his career, Fleury has been routinely outplayed, or wrestled to a virtual draw, by whomever his backups happen to be.

And, like, this isn't a list of future No. 1 goaltenders who just happened to get stuck behind a guy who's entrenched because he won one Stanley Cup a few years ago. These are all-time not-good goalies: Ty Conklin, Dany Sabourin, Brent Johnson, Tomas Vokoun, and Jeff Zatkoff. This year, it's Thomas Greiss, whose career numbers are better than Fleury's as well.

Now, the argument against this is that you use Fleury in games against good teams and frequently, while using backups in contests against bad ones and not very often at all. Fair enough. But we have thousands upon thousands of shots of data at this point, and “primary backups” have a save percentage that's two points higher than what Fleury has done since 2007-08. That's meaningful.

Again, he doesn't necessarily hurt Pittsburgh most times out, but not-helping them is a problem when it costs this much.

...the cap's going up.

This is the way in which every bad contract is defended. Brooks Orpik's deal won't be so bad in three years because The Cap's Going Up. You're right, it is.

And by that token, we should examine contacts not in terms of their dollar value, but rather the percentage of the cap being taken up by them.

So let's presume that cap goes up to $74 million or so next season (it might even be a little lower than that). That's 7.78 percent of the salary cap, and it's seemingly not a huge number. Since Fleury signed his current deal, the cap has gone up about 20 percent, to today's $69 million from $56.7 million in 2008-09.

And if he was pulling a $5 million AAV back then, that was 8.82 percent of the salary cap. By this token, then, he's actually received a bit of a pay cut.

But even with the cap going up, the ability to save even $1-2 million against it remains important. The thing that's doomed the Penguins' playoff hopes over the last several years (apart from Fleury being disastrous in almost all of them, which we'll get to soon) has been the team's complete lack of depth, which has come about because the Penguins always always always overpay for players.

Pascal Dupuis, for instance, is not worth $3.75 million if he doesn't play minutes with Crosby or Malkin. This is also true of Chris Kunitz, who makes $3.85 million. Nor is Rob Scuderi worth $3.375 million (though that's more a result of the team overvaluing “grit” than anything else. See also: the Douglas Murray acquisition). Almost everyone who has ever gotten ice time with either of these two players has seen their points-per-game and possession numbers go through the roof. The WOWYs for Crosby and Malkin don't lie, but the Penguins have long made a habit of cutting checks based on the “When on ice together” column exclusively.

Thus, we can safely say that the Penguins throw away several million dollars per year on players who don't deserve to be paid as much as they are — it's that Ryan Getzlaf axiom of, “Go to the net and I'll make you rich,” played to its logical extreme — and with Fleury it's the same thing. If you can spend less money on similar production, you really ought to do it so that you can shore up any roster holes you may have.

The cap may be going up, but that means the amount you have to pay for talent is as well. The Penguins have to re-sign basically the entire bottom of their lineup, plus Christian Ehrhoff. Having that extra $2 million would probably help next year.

...there are worse goalie contracts out there.

This isn't really an argument. You shouldn't be in a race to see who has the worst contract. If you stand accused of two counts of grand theft auto, saying, “Yes, your honor, but other people have stolen way more cars than that,” is likewise not a very good defense.

Just because Jonathan Quick and Corey Crawford are hilariously overpaid doesn't mean you have to jump off that bridge too.

...the league's goalie valuation system is awful.

This relates back to that last point, but that's also true. Goalies have such a huge impact on this sport in ways that most fans (and GMs, apparently) do not understand. Even a .001 difference in goaltending is, over the course of a season, usually enough to make or break a club's playoff chances. That, in turn, has a big impact on everyone's favorite stat: wins.

Every cent you spend on player contracts, you are essentially using to buy standings points. Goaltenders have more of an impact on this than anyone else because they play far more minutes than anyone on your team. Thus, elite goaltending wins you more games than even a peak-performance Sidney Crosby ever will, and you can safely say that a Tuukka Rask or Henrik Lundqvist contract, seemingly overpaid though they may be, actually returns the vast majority of their dollar value in the form of wins in just one or two seasons.

But this gets back to that league-average thing: Supposing Fleury can deliver even two or three wins above replacement level in two or three seasons, his $5.75 million will have been worth it during that time. But in terms of that stat “goals saved above average,” which Greg cited in his defense of the Fleury deal yesterday is at 15.72 since 2008-09, when his current contract began. That's 2.25 goals saved per season, on average, which is worth less than one point in the standings per year.

Just to compare that back to Antti Niemi, who quite conveniently entered the league in 2008-09, the total number of goals he's saved above average for his career is 29.81, or 4.26 per. Nearly double Fleury's contribution.

The way the league values goalies is certainly messed up, but the way it values Fleury is probably a little worse.

...he seems to have his head on straight now.

Here we get to the idea that something beyond the regular season is statistically significant, which it's hard to agree with in any given year. But over time, as with anything else, you'd have to start to look at the way anyone plays in that situation and say, “Okay,” to such an evaluation.

You can say all you like that Fleury has been perfectly average in the regular season, which he has. He has been an unequivocal disaster in the playoffs. Including the run to the Fleury-backed Stanley Cup, his postseason save percentage in the past seven seasons is .897. This is indefensibly bad.

And people defend it anyway. “Well it wouldn't be so bad if you take out the .834 meltdown against Philadelphia, or the .883 meltdown that cost him the starting job in favor of Thomas Vokoun.” Okay sure, let's take those away for whatever reason. That improves his postseason save percentage to in the last six years to .905. A cool newsflash is that .905 can still be safely categorized as “hot garbage.” Also, you're basically saying that you should buy as high as possible on a 30-year-old. Which doesn't make sense.

But people who believe in Fleury also point to his performance of late: .915 last year, in both the regular season and playoffs, and .931 so far this year. That's .917, and you take .917 walking away. That's career-best Marc-Andre Fleury right there. But you're also taking 86 games from a 29-year-old as being more indicative of future performance than the previous five years of data, during which time he was .913 in 294 appearances.

If you think the good numbers in less than 100, and not the mediocre ones in almost 300, are what he's going to do when he's 31, 32, 33, and 34 years old, I have a $5.75 million league-average goaltender to sell you.

...he's the franchise goalie.

Every high pick is a franchise player until they're not any more.

Yeah, he plays 60 games a year without fail, and not everyone can do that, in theory. But every goalie, regardless of where, he's picked is also a backup until he gets the chance to play 60 a year. And NHL teams are very averse to change, especially in the net. Much like the whole Fleury argument, they'd rather dance with the devil they know, even if the devil they know isn't great.

For instance, let's use another overpaid Rutherford signing in Cam Ward as an example. He is still the Hurricanes' No. 1 starter despite the fact that he's been so far below average over the last three years as to be laughable. He used to be very good, and now he is very bad. Still, Khudobin has not been able to usurp him despite better numbers more or less across the board in his career. It'll happen one day — probably when Ward's contract mercifully expires this summer — but until such time as that happens, Carolina isn't going to bench the $6.3 million “franchise goalie” who won them a Cup in favor of the less proven backup.

That's just how the league is. It has little bearing on actual talent and production.

...he's buddies with Sidney Crosby.

This, admittedly, is one that might seem kind of stupid, but I've seen it in a few places and it is, in fact, worth addressing. More specifically, how Fleury affects Sidney Crosby's feelings is important.

Crosby might be best friends with Fleury and they hang out away from the rink every day, but there's no other way to frame things: Fleury — and the Penguins' overall lack of depth — has held Crosby back from what should be a more successful career on the team level. Because of the club's aforementioned penchant for overpaying mediocre players, the Penguins have been run over in many postseasons since that Cup run, which by the way was marked by Pittsburgh being extraordinarily deep at every position (except in goal, haha).

The fact of the matter is that Crosby is probably going to retire still being a better-than-league-average player, and the same is true of Evgeni Malkin. At least, if injuries don't wear them down to nubs first. But they're not going to be apex predators in this league forever. Crosby is 27, Malkin 28. Both have contracts taking them deep into their 30s, and by the end of them they're not going to be what we think of as “Crosby and Malkin, dominant one-two punch down the middle” any more. That's just the reality. So what the Penguins have done in signing this Fleury contract is essentially commit to accepting league-average goaltending until their superstars are out of their primes.

Crosby will be two months out from his 32nd birthday, and Malkin will be approaching 33 when Fleury's deal expires. An area of weakness in blowing their chances at another title in their mid-20s has unequivocally been Fleury's goaltending. Again, he's been sub-average in the playoffs in just about every season since 2008-09. On a job satisfaction level, what do you think would make Crosby happier: Having a buddy or having a title contender?

Crosby can still be friends with Fleury if Fleury is on another team. But Crosby might not have a legitimate shot at another Cup with Fleury still around.

And that, for the Penguins, is what this should really all boil down to.

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.