It's a bit unfair to compare Pittsburgh Penguins' goaltenders Marc-Andre Fleury and Brent Johnson at this point in the young NHL season. Fleury is off to his worst start ever, while Johnson is off to perhaps his best, and history tells us that things will even up a bit over the long haul.
But it is important to understand what Johnson is doing right and what Fleury is doing wrong. Johnson's straightforward style has earned him plenty of playing time, and Fleury could learn a lot by watching him from the bench.
First, by the numbers:
|2010 - Marc-Andre Fleury||6||358||1||5||20||3.35||146||126||.863||0|
|2010 - Brent Johnson||6||362||5||0||7||1.16||176||169||.960||1|
It's a small sample size, yes, but the stats show a stark contrast. Johnson is outperforming Fleury in every conceivable way, holding large leads in wins, goals against average, saves and save percentage. He has also posted his first shutout since 2006.
Fleury, meanwhile, is yet to surrender fewer than three goals in a contest thus far this season. Among goaltenders who have played six games or more, Fleury has the fewest wins and lowest save percentage, while Johnson's save percentage ranks at the top of that list.
The contrast is enormous. But why? What has caused Brent Johnson to turn out some of the most confident, dominant performances of his career while Fleury looks inept?
First and foremost, it's the simplicity of Johnson's game compared to Fleury's complicated one. When asked why he has had such a hot start, Johnson recently said that it's straightforward enough.
Sounds simple. But let's not just take Johnson's word for it.
Johnson's movements are very compact. He does not use much energy moving across the crease unless he has to. In each of the two games, you're not seeing many spectacular saves from Johnson, because he has consistently been in excellent position to make saves. And when he has been required to provide something extra, he has done so with aplomb, particularly evidenced in his diving stop against the Carolina Hurricanes.
Johnson does occasionally have a tendency to move a bit too deep into his net. Daniel Alfredsson's power play goal early in the season shows Johnson making this rare mistake, which was further compounded when he lost his angle. You'll want to skip ahead to 6:15 for the goal in question:
This is a power play, so Johnson has to deal with a lot of movement in his crease as the Senators move the puck around. The more a goalie has to move, the more likely he is to lose his angle in the process. Another difficulty is the extra forward screening Johnson, making it more difficult for him to challenge the shooter aggressively and clearly see the puck.
Still, for where Alfredsson is positioned, Johnson should be farther out of his net, almost to the edge of his crease, and a bit farther inside as well, sacrificing a bit of his short side so he can cover the far post. Alfreddson, in a position where a player won't typically shoot, sees Johnson in a weak spot and lets loose a very, very good wrist shot. It was a great goal for the Senators captain and a poor one for Johnson to give up.
Johnson's mistake may not seem like much, but those minor details are exploited by the elite of the NHL and this is what separates the good goaltenders from the bad. To be fair to Johnson, this goal is the exception to what has been the rule this season, a goal where Johnson was not very big in his net and had to try and rely on his glove hand to bail him out.
Now, where Johnson has typically been sound in his movement, Fleury has been a bit of a mess:
Against Tampa Bay, we see most of the things Fleury has done wrong recently. The two most notable errors are on the first and last goals he allows:
First Goal: Fleury mentally lets up, losing track of the puck behind the net. Once the puck reaches the front, he is unable to react because he has no clue as to where it is. A similar mistake happened against Montreal earlier this year.
Last Goal: You can't blame Fleury for the defensive letdown to give Tampa Bay the opportunity, but you can criticize how he reacted to it. Fleury doesn't react to what Martin St. Louis is doing, rather Fleury plans what he is doing in advance and sets up for the poke check. Fleury has a tendency to go for the poke and St. Louis can see it coming from a mile away. As the speedy Lightning forward feigns his move across the net, he fires short side, where the sprawling Fleury has left the net open to be exploited. Game: Lightning.
More glaring is Fleury's tendency to make too many micro-movements in the crease. He almost seems restless in net, unable to sit still and settle into a spot and, as a result, always seems to leave a small hole open, ready to be exploited. This becomes more glaringly apparent when he loses his composure, particularly after he has given up a fluke goal or a deflection. A notable example of this occurred against Montreal earlier this season, where a 2-1 lead evaporated in seconds late in the third period. As Fleury's composure slips, so does his competence.
What we do know about Fleury is that he has the ability to make spectacular saves. Quick and agile, his natural ability may almost be his curse, making him want to do more than he really needs to.
The best goaltenders don't usually need to make spectacular saves. Their positioning and technique is sound enough that, on most shots, they don't have to do much.
When Fleury is out of position, he has the speed and reflexes to compensate for it and make saves that most goaltenders can't. But the key to Fleury becoming a top-tier goaltender and getting out of this funk won't be making those spectacular saves. It'll be working his way back into a situations where the saves are easy. Because no matter how this season has started, Fleury is still the player who did this:
Not only was Fleury shelled by the Red Wings, but he also gave up a fluke goal and still managed to keep his composure. He used his quickness to get back into position to make the next save, not to scramble aimlessly. His movements were much more precise. That is the obvious contrast with the Fleury we have seen in 2010.
Brent Johnson assuredly deserves fair his share of starts now. The Pens are in the business of winning hockey games and, right now, Johnson gives them the best chance to win. For the foreseeable future, Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma seems set to deploy Johnson and Fleury as a platoon as the team faces a heavy schedule over the next few weeks.
Much is also made of Fleury's supposedly frail mental state and how poorly he could react to a potential benching or time-share. But the reality is that if Fleury is that mentally weak, he is not fit to be the long-term starting goaltender for the Penguins. If Fleury is to become all he can be or all that he was, he needs to learn to stand tall in the face of adversity. And, most importantly, he needs to do it sooner rather than later.