One quick way to answer the question posed in the headline would be "No." The guy won a Stanley Cup in the first year of his 7-year, $35 million dollar deal. That's a perfectly legitimate way to end the discussion, but it's August, and we'd prefer to prolong it. Besides, the conventional wisdom regarding goaltenders in the NHL is, undeniably, changing, and recent events warrant renewed analysis of the MAF deal.
See GTOG's analysis after the jump...
You know what I'm talking about if you've been following the recent salary cap gymnastics of the 2010 Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks. After jettisoning Dustin Byfuligen, Kris Versteeg, Andrew Ladd, Brent Sopel, Ben Eager and Colin Fraser in a scramble to get under the salary cap for the coming season, the Hawks had one final, difficult choice to make. ESPN's Alvin Chang outlines it here, but in case you're not an Insider, these were the options:
a. Let smooth-skating defenseman Nik Hjalmarsson go, add first- and third-round picks and keep goalie Antti Niemi
b. Trade center Patrick Sharp, add picks/prospects from that deal and keep Niemi
c. Keep Sharp, keep Hjalmarsson, add nothing else and let Niemi go
Sharp is a nice player, a solid 25-goal guy with a $3.9 million cap hit. Hjalmarsson is a young, mobile defenseman, who the Sharks signed to a $3.5 million a year offer sheet. The Hawks matched the offer. When an arbitrator awarded the 26-year-old Niemi a $2.75 million contract, something had to give.
Three years ago, I would argue that that the Hawks would have let the defenseman walk. They already have three upper echelon guys in Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, and Brian Campbell's Ludicrous Contract. If in 2007 you had the option to keep a young Cup-winning goalie for $2.75 million, you had to do it, right? Niemi wasn't dominant in the playoffs, but he was good, accounting for all 16 of his team's wins, a .910 save percentage, and a 2.63 GAA. For the price, you couldn't possibly expect more.
But 2010 is apparently a whole different story. More and more teams are adopting Detroit GM Ken Holland's approach of not paying for goaltending, preferring instead to invest limited cap resources in defensemen. Chang quotes Pens' GM Ray Shero as saying: "It's kind of like pitching in baseball. You need good defensemen in order to win." Funny, didn't it always used to be that goaltending was like pitching in baseball? Remember when you couldn't win a Cup without a Patrick Roy, a Grant Fuhr, a Dom Hasek, a Marty Brodeur, or at least a Tommy Barrasso?
Now the league's top teams are holding down the fort with guys like Marty Turco (Chicago, $1.3 million cap hit), Semyon Varlamov (Washington, $821K cap hit), Michael Leighton (Philadelphia, $1.55 million cap hit), and Antero Nittymaki (San Jose, $2 million cap hit). Meanwhile, players like Jaroslav Halak, who would actually scare you if you had to see them again in the playoffs, are getting traded to the St. Louis Blues. Evgeni Nabakov can't find a home in the NHL. And the defending Stanley Cup-winning goalie is out on the street.
Where Does This Leave the Penguins?
Leaving aside, for the moment, the question of whether Fleury is worth $5 million a year in this climate, his contract certainly hasn't prevented Shero from assembling a formidable group of defensemen. As has been discussed repeatedly in this space, the Artist Formerly Known as New Jersey's Best Defenseman, Z-Mickle, Kris Letang, and Brooks Orpik make up perhaps the finest top four in the conference. And there is no need to belabor the obvious by going on at any length about the Pens' strength down the middle. That brings the discussion back to familiar territory: the wingers. Chris Kunitz, Pascal Dupuis, Matt Cooke, Tyler Kennedy, Max Talbot, Mike Rupp, Eric Tangradi, and Eric Godard. I don't know what is more upsetting, the fact that Chris Kunitz is first on this list or that Pascal Dupuis is second. In any event, it's not an impressive one.
It may be tempting to consider reallocating, say, $3 million of the annual salary we're paying our suddenly shaky goalie to give that group a bit of an upgrade, but even if Shero could make that happen, it wouldn't be a good idea. Here's why:
1) $3 Million Buys You Alexei Ponikarovsky.
That's what My Little Poni just signed for with the Los Angeles Kings, and I'm sure they couldn't pay Shero to take him back. If the value of NHL goalies is deflated right now, the value of NHL wingers is terribly inflated, as discussed during the early days of this summer's free agency period. The smart money these days is in 1) defenseman; 2) centers; and 3) top tier goalies. That's the list.
2) The Penguins Do Not Have a Problem Generating Offense.
The key to the Penguins getting to their game is maintaining puck possession in the other team's zone. They did this with regularity in the playoffs, peppering Montreal's Halak with shots and, until Game 7 (which was, to be kind, an abomination), generally dominating play. They lost because of consistent and untimely defensive lapses and because their goalie, who had been so impressive in two straight runs to the Stanley Cup Finals, took the air out of the team by letting in a series of soft goals. Shero's offseason signings should ensure that the defense will be just as strong, if not stronger, than it was in 2008-2009. The absence of Poni Boy, Ruslan Fedotenko, and the expected departure of Billy Guerin, combined with the anticipated emergence of Tangradi and perhaps another young player, should enhance the team's speed on the wing. Count on a bounceback year from Evgeni Malkin. Jordan Staal was the only guy that made me proud in that Game 7. He's a man, baby. And, of course, there is Crosby. Not to put too fine a point on it, but this brings us back to the goalie.
3) Fleury is a Potential Difference-Maker
I don't know why Fleury failed so miserably in the 2010 playoffs, but there's no other way to look at it. He let in long range, seeing-eye wristshots. He gave up gigantic rebounds. And he let in a terrible goal 30 seconds into the biggest game of the season. But ask yourself this: What if he didn't let in that goal? What if he played in Game 7 against Montreal like he did in Game 5 of the 2008 Stanley Cup Final? What if his legs were shooting out like lightning to cover the open side of the net? What if, instead of letting in that soft early goal, he did something like this:
He has it in him. We've seen it. And if he played the way he was capable of last spring, the fact that we had Pascal Dupuis patrolling Sid's wing might not have made one bit of difference. It says here that Marc-Andre Fleury has earned at least one free pass. I don't know if we'll be back here next season wishing the Penguins could join the newly formed Elite Team With Cheap Goalie Club, but for now, I think we should be more than willing to use that extra $3 million to find out.