Remember, remember, the 5th of November, as the day Marc-Andre Fleury re-signed with the Pittsburgh Penguins for four more years.
The announcement came down from an official team release that the Penguins had indeed re-signed their number-1 goaltender to a four-year extension, as his current contract was set to run out at the end of the year. The extension is worth $23-million over the four years, or an average annual value (AAV) of $5.75-million.
Initial reactions across the NHL Twittersphere ranged from “they had to pay for a goalie, given a weak unrestricted free agent goalie market after this year” to “hahahahahahaha.” Let’s see exactly what this contract is, how it came to be about, and whether Fleury is worth the money.
Free Agent Goalie Market
The first aspect that needs to be looked at is what the Penguins’ options would be after this season if they did indeed part ways with Fleury. It’s easy to make fun of the team for the decision in a nutshell, but like most things in life, it needs context.
Via CapGeek, it’s a pretty weak market after this season for goaltenders. Here are some of the top names:
- Antti Niemi – By even strength save percentage, Niemi is an average goalie and he’ll be 32-years-old for next season. Not necessarily an ideal choice.
- Josh Harding – Perhaps an upgrade in net, but his inability to stay healthy – partly because of situations out of his control – isn’t an ideal choice either. Paying for a goalie who might only play 20-30 games isn’t a way to solidify a potential Cup contending team.
- Jhonas Enroth – Hasn’t proven anything yet, and may still be re-signed by Buffalo before he’s a free agent.
Other than that, there’s names like Karri Ramo, Viktor Fasth, Ray Emery, Peter Budaj, Devan Dubnyk, and Jonas Gustavsson. It’s an ugly cast of goaltenders, and this likely factored in Pittsburgh’s decision.
While $5.75-million a season for a goalie that has been as up-and-down (with lots of the latter), it seems to be about right for the goalie market. Consider that Jonathan Quick, Corey Crawford, and Mike Smith are all goalies that are in the bottom-half of the league in even strength save percentage in the last five years, and then (with numbers again from CapGeek):
- Quick is signed into next decade at $5.8-million AAV.
- Crawford has five more years after this one at $6-million AAV.
- Smith has four more years after this one at $5.67-million AAV.
Whether hockey fans agree with it or not, the established market for a non-elite starting goalie seems to be between $5.5-million and $6-million. While Fleury is technically the lowest on the list in terms of save percentage, he’s also signed to fewer years than Crawford or Quick.
There really isn’t a whole lot of organizational depth in net for the Pittsburgh Penguins. It obviously hadn’t been given much of a though until recently, but the bottom line is there isn’t a young superstar goalie waiting to take Fleury’s spot right now:
- Jeff Zatkoff was the call-up last year, but he’s nothing special, and certainly not a franchise goalie.
- Matt Murray was a third round pick who is getting starts in the AHL, but he’s sitting at seven total professional games. He’s just 20-years-old, so he’s still, at a minimum, still two years away from consideration at the NHL level.
- The same goes for Tristan Jarry, who was a second round pick for Pittsburgh in 2013. He may be a goaltender of the future, but he’s probably going to be even longer than Murray, as Jarry is still in junior hockey.
So even if the Penguins thought they might have a goalie of the future coming, there are none ready for full-time duties in the NHL right now, and at least for a couple of years.
It can be said with almost certainty that Fleury will never be an elite NHL goalie – he ranks near the bottom of the league in 5-on-5 save percentage since the Penguins won the Stanley Cup in 2009. Pittsburgh may have figured out that he doesn’t necessarily have to be, either:
Since Fleury won the Cup in 2009, the winning starting goaltenders for hockey’s championship have been Antti Niemi, Tim Thomas, Jonathan Quick (twice), and Corey Crawford. Since 2009, those four goalies rank 14th, 11th, 21st, and 19th, respectively, on 5-on-5 save percentage. Thomas is an exception, because he was much better four years ago than he is now, due to his age.
So outside of Boston, no other Stanley Cup winner in the last five years has done so with an elite goaltender. They got by with either average goaltending, or above-average goaltending from an average goaltender (which can happen; almost any goalie can have a one-off career year). In that sense, perhaps the Penguins are hoping either Fleury has a one-off career year, or that the team is good enough to hide his flaws.
There’s also the fact that Fleury has the second-most games played from 2009-2014. His ability to stay healthy is something that carries value. Just ask Minnesota or Nashville last year how much having injured starting goalies hurts a team.
The Fleury contract isn’t very good, but it’s about par for the course in the NHL. Considering Pittsburgh’s other options, either in their system or via free agency, and the track record of goaltenders succeeding despite their problems in recent years, maybe this contract isn’t as bad as it seems at first glance.