Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Can You Learn How to Be a Winner?

Once upon a time, there was a goalie in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League who was a highly-touted prospect. He played 35 games as a 16 year old and then attracted a lot of attention with a great year as a 17 year old. He was named the best defensive player in the Q and his team won two playoff rounds before losing in the semifinals. At the end of the season, the goalie's name was the first one called out in the NHL entry draft. Everything looked very promising indeed.

Then this is what happened to him in big games (playoffs and international hockey) over the next 5 seasons:

18 years old: 0-4, 4.47, .904 in a first round loss, plays fairly well at the world juniors but loses in the gold medal game

19 years old: 1-3, 3.31, .886 in a first round loss to a #7 seeded team, let in 6 goals on 30 shots in brief taste of AHL playoffs, scores the game winning goal on himself while stopping 24 of 28 shots in a loss in the gold medal final at the world juniors

20 years old: 0-2, 4.37, .843 in the AHL playoffs, loses starting job to Andy Chiodo

21 years old: 2-3, 3.47, .883 in the AHL playoffs, loses starting job to Dany Sabourin

22 years old: 1-4, 3.76, .880 in first taste of NHL playoff action

That's nothing short of awful, right there. Surely this guy would never be able to accomplish anything in big games, right? Let's continue:

23 years old: .933 save percentage as his team goes to the Stanley Cup Final

24 years old: Stanley Cup champion

I'm sure you have already recognized the goalie as Marc-Andre Fleury. I don't know of any other elite goalie prospect with a worse pre-NHL playoff career than Fleury. People often like to criticize goalies by saying that they have "never won anything"; Fleury not only didn't win anything, but he pretty much actively helped lose everything that he was involved in. Yet today he is considered by many to be one of the game's best pressure performers. I can recall in particular a few exceedingly dumb columns written by sportswriters arguing that Fleury's amazing clutch abilities should have made him the starter for Team Canada over Roberto Luongo in the medal round after the U.S.A. loss, even though their arguments boiled down to little more than "1 Cup > 0 Cups".

If one was to argue that Marc-Andre Fleury is clutch, then it would seem to be difficult to also claim that past clutch performance is a great predictor of future results. This is a sample of one, I recognize that, but the extreme nature of the results at both ends would still be pretty unlikely if goalies are truly consistent in pressure situations. The only way around this would seem to be to claim that everything that takes place before the NHL doesn't count at all, or to claim that something changed with Fleury as he got older, he "learned how to win" or something like that. The natural follow-up question to that would be that if Fleury was able to so easily escape his past failures, what's to stop any other goalie from deciding to do the same? Again, that would not reflect particularly well on the value of using past playoff successes to predict future ones.

No doubt some clever sportswriter could craft some eloquent narrative about how Fleury learned to "play within himself" and realized that "he didn't have to make all the saves, just the important saves", or possibly that he was "mentored by a veteran backup/goalie coach/teammate who taught him the mindset of a champion." I think he just had Crosby and Malkin on his team. We'll see if the Pens can make a third straight run to the Finals, the door appears to be wide open for them and so far they are 5-2 despite Fleury's .889. No doubt that would lead to a lot more veneration of this "modern-day Grant Fuhr".


nightfly said...

One national news organization named MAF their first star of the night after the 2-0 shutout... in which he had all of 18 saves.


Anonymous said...

I'm glad you finally made a post about Fleury, but I feel like you left way too much on the table in this one. His sv% in last season's Cup win was .908 which was the lowest in 20 years or so. Stats from this year are pretty bad: .905 sv%, .908 even-strength sv%, outplayed by backup Brent Johnson.

Sadly, the sports writers are kind of right - the Pens don't need him to be spectacular to win.

Editor's note: I'm a HUGE Pens fan, but I feel Fleury is not living up to his potential and certainly not living up to his $5M contract.

miah said...

Which goaltenders ARE living up to their bloated contracts then in your opinion? There are so few goaltenders in the league that I would pick over Fleury. You want Chris Osgood? Nabokov puts up huge win totals every year and bombs in the playoffs. Same w/ Kiprusoff. Brodeur? Please. 3 straight first round losses. Fleury is money, and just entering his prime.

The Contrarian Goaltender said...

The goalies who stop a very high percentage of shots against in the regular season are living up to their contracts. Whether their teams win or lose in the playoffs has a whole lot to do with randomness and the other 18 guys on the team. It's kind of funny how you dismiss Brodeur - if I recall correctly, he had two very good playoff runs early in his career as well. He even won a Cup a ring in his early twenties, just like Fleury. Do Brodeur's recent playoff results mean that early success might not guarantee that a goalie is going to win everything for the rest of his career? I'm shocked, shocked I say!

I'm just skeptical that Fleury is clutch, and I want an explanation of how he could go from such a disastrous pressure record to a lofty pressure reputation if the cause of playoff performance is entirely the result of internal factors. I have no doubt that Fleury has matured a lot, he's learned some things and that he is a better overall goalie now than when he was sitting on the bench watching Dany Sabourin carry his team in the AHL playoffs, but that's true for almost every top pro prospect in their late teens and early twenties.

How did Fleury go from choker to money goalie? I don't think he did. No matter how much we want to claim that some athlete's performance was simply a reflection of their internal character, it isn't. Some days you have it and some days you don't. If I'm wrong, and there really was some mental change with Fleury that suddenly made him a money goalie and unbeatable with the game on the line, then some goalie coach or sports psychologist on the Pittsburgh Penguins is way underpaid.

And for proof of him being a money goalie, I'm going to need more than simply having been able to win hockey games with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin on his team. Because no matter how much the media and fans like to hype up a breakaway save on Ovechkin and a save on a sharp-angle shot by Lidstrom, there are other goalies out there who could have won it all if they played for the 2008-09 Penguins.

Jonathan said...

@ Nightfly: 18 saves on 18 shots is first star material, since an average performance would be something like 1.5 goals against. That's almost the equivalent of a skater scoring two goals. Considering nobody generated that level of offense (and nobody prevented 18 shots on defense), Fleury's first star status was warranted.

Considering the high variance of performances, I'd expect even a mediocre goaltender to get a 3-stars mention on a consistent basis. At least more often than a 3rd-line winger or a second line D-man.

Fleury does get a ridiculous level of individual praise for basically having Geno and Sidney on his team. But he also get an absurd level of criticism from the local media when he has a bad game. Fleury just is what he is: an average NHL goalie who may have potential to improve since he is very young. 90.7% career save pct, and 91.3% in the playoffs. He'll have good games and he'll have bad games. He's just one decent role player on a team with a couple of superstars--not to mention a shockingly easy path to the Stanley Cup Final this year. ;)

Jonathan said...

Nabokov/Kipper/Brodeur always have great regular seasons and them bomb in the playoffs? Really??

Nabokov .912 in the regular season, .915 in the postseason.
Kiprusoff .914 in the regular season, .921 in the playoffs.
Brodeur is .914 in the regular season, .919 in the playoffs.

In all cases, GAA follows a similar trajectory from regular season to playoffs.

I find that 99 times out of 100, when fans say that a player or team "does awesome in the regular season then always seems to choke in the playoffs," the facts utterly contradict that cliche. Most of the time, a team is seen as having a great regular season if they get a top-three or four seed or qualify for the playoffs ever year or something along those lines. If they don't win the Cup, they are seen as choking in the playoffs. It doesn't take a 750 on the math section of the SAT to figure out that this perception artificially inflates the number of choke artists in sports.

Don't believe me? Last week, when Washington was playing Montreal in Game 7, the Habs went up 2-0 and then saw their lead get cut to 2-1 late. So either Washington was going to lose to an 8 seed after leading the series 3-1, or Montreal was going to lose after leading game 7 2-0 n the final five minutes. This caused a couple of people to quip that "someone's definitely going to choke now." This statement is absurd for obvious reasons. Seriously, what happens if both teams just perform well for the last few minutes? Is nobody going to lose, automatically?

The choker label is among the most overused in sports. I think people just use it because they've been conditioned to believe that players perform differently in "pressure" situations. In reality, that's very far from the truth.

Jonathan said...

The odd thing about Fleury is that he had a .933 sv% in 2008, when his team lost in the SCF. Yet all anybody could remember about him was that he tripped and fell to the ice before game one, and a puck deflected off of his butt into the goal in game six. In 2009, he had a .908 sv% and all anyone remembers is his stop on Ovechkin, his stop on Lidstrom after giving up a juicy rebound, and him holding up the Stanley Cup. And yet if Talbot bangs his toe that morning and has to be scratched for game 7, then our perception of Fleury would be altered by that.

Again, Fleury just is what he is. He's not a great player, but he's a decent player on a great team. Heck, being on a great team is probably more meaningful in the long run anyway.

nightfly said...

@Jonathan - fair point about the percentages, but 18 shots is a very light workload for a goaltender. It makes it far easier to outperform the expectation of 1.5 goals - which is still smaller than the actual margin of victory in that game. Facing nine shots fewer than the 60-minute average doesn't really make for a difference-making performance.

I've got no problem with him being one of the three stars of his own game that night; to be called First Star of BOTH playoff games that night? A night that Joe Thornton scored and had the assist on an OT game-winner? A night that Sergei Gonchar played 25 minutes for a team that held Montreal to 18 SOG while assisting on the game-winner? A night that Evgeni Malkin peppered Halak with seven shots of his own, including the only one that beat him?

Eh. Not by my lights.

Derick said...

Thornton was the first star that night, hands down.

Spot on TCG. Same thing I've written many times on may forums, except with more insults and less knowledge of his AHL history.

Unknown said...

In most sports, the MVP is being hailed by how much he scored for the whole season. In hockey, though it's also important to score, blocking every shot is as important. This is why the performance of a goalie greatly affects how the game would go, and how it will turn out for both teams.
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