The only way to bury the haunting ghosts of past failures is to focus fully on the current task at hand. In a season where slumps and losing streaks have hit outrageous levels for some, the importance of non-statistical goaltending factors is stronger than ever before. So if you’re going to battle the pangs of tough weekly losses in your own fantasy league with any success, you need to heighten your sense of situational awareness.
For many of the top fantasy goalies, their path to the top is never a straightforward journey. It’s a winding climb, a fall followed by a rise, followed by another fall. We’ve all heard the saying, “You have to lose before you can win…” and it certainly rings true for the likes of Craig Anderson, Ondrej Pavelec and Jaroslav Halak. But another phrase we hear often is, “You play like you practice…” and that is where the art of internal compete is revealed.
Compete. It seems so simple to understand, to execute. But at the end of the day, competing on a consistent basis is nearly impossible over the course of an 82-game season. And once a goalie’s compete level is impacted by the infinite statistical and mental factors that flow in and out of their daily lives, it is the fantasy managers that are stirred into a dizzying array of tough decisions.
We never know what a goalie is truly thinking. We only see what they are doing. So what makes “Compete” such an art is the simple fact that no two games are alike, no two situations are the same and no two paths to a positive result are traveled in the same manner.
A few days ago I was asked to cover the recent play and fantasy outlook for three struggling goalies – Steve Mason, Niklas Backstrom and Marc-Andre Fleury. As soon as all three were named, the term Compete all but slapped me in the face. For each of these goalies, could their compete level truly be the source of their struggles? Let’s find out.
Fleury’s current stat-line reveals that he’s been mediocre at best. He’s currently 10-6-0 with a 2.52 GAA and only a .904 save percentage. He’s struggling with a four-game losing streak in which he’s allowed 13 goals against. And when it comes to Fleury’s compete level, it has to be scrutinized. I watched him in San Jose and he’s just not focused on tracking the puck in his zone on a consistent basis. It shows in his weak rebound control and his inability to make the timely save.
Although I rarely spend time crunching numbers, I noticed that the last two times he has started in the second game of a back-to-back, both were tough losses where he didn’t see a lot of shots (Oct. 24 and Oct. 31). On Halloween, he only stopped 13 of 15 shots in a in a 2-1 loss to the Wild. That’s more proof his focus is lacking, because the loss was not a result of being over-worked.
Nevertheless, Fleury is still one of the best butterfly goalies in the world. When he’s on, he’s on. When he’s not, he’s pretty terrible. If owners want to squeeze the most out of him, they’ll ride the highs and stay far away from the lows.
Similar to Cristobal Huet, Fleury is a pure Quebec butterfly goalie, so he thrives on rhythm. He’s most effective when he sees shots cleanly, early and often. But this has been a different type of season for Fleury, one in which he’s only facing an average of 25.4 shots per game. Only three times this season has he faced more than 30 shots (2-1).
He’s already had a quality eight-game winning streak to start the season and now he’s mired in a losing streak, so expect more of these highs and lows the rest of the year. At this point last year, Fleury was 8-3-2, had been pulled once, and had allowed 40 goals against, putting him over the 3.0 GAA mark. Compared to last season, I’m left with the expectation that Fleury’s stats and his level of play will hover around this mediocre 2.5-2.6 GAA.
It also must be said that Evgeni Malkin’s absence from the lineup (Oct. 29 – Nov. 13) directly impacted not only his overall play, but the play of the entire team. Fleury only won once when Geno was out of the lineup and it was a 4-3 win over the Ducks, a game in which he faced 29 shots. Let’s see how much Fleury’s play improves now that Malkin is back in the lineup.
But if you really want to know how Fleury is playing, watch to see if he has sharp movement, an intense focus and good rebound control. Those are all signs of a strong compete level, and all things he has been unable to display on a consistent basis this season, especially when Malkin was out of the lineup.
The sophomore slump. It’s an ordinary story for a number of young, talented goalies in the league. When met with a strong and consistent compete level, the slump usually tapers off sooner than later. But when met with indifference, it’s often perpetuated for an entire season. The key for me, right here, right now, is to figure out which one will be the end result for Mason, a goalie who has the skill, but doesn’t yet have the experience of playing a full NHL season.
First of all, Mason is currently dealing with back spasms. This was reported yesterday (Sunday) afternoon by the local media (Aaron Portzline I believe), meaning that Mathieu Garon will be starting tonight against his former team. To be honest, a few days away from the rink is the best thing possible for Mason. He needs a major reset, a chance to get away from the pressures of living up to the Calder Trophy winner label. It can only be a positive thing for the kid, so these spasms, if they are not too serious, are a sheer blessing in disguise.
Dissecting his season to date, there’s not one statistic that sticks out more than the others when it comes to figuring out his issues. Instead, it’s a day in time. Let’s face it - his first six games were actually pretty decent appearances. He went 4-2 with only six goals allowed in the four wins, but 11 goals allowed in the two losses. Similar to Fleury, when he was on, he was on. When he was lacking focus and a strong level of compete, he struggled greatly. It was also very obvious that Mason was lacking some confidence and mental toughness, but this could be credited to the fact that his rookie season with the Blue Jackets didn’t actually begin in early-October.
But I remember seeing everything change for Mason on the second night of a back-to-back series. On Oct. 24 in Anaheim, he stopped 32 shots in a 6-4 win, a game where he was very sharp technically, but not all there mentally. Instead of being rested the following night, he was thrown back into the fire against the Kings and allowed six goals on 25 shots in the loss. It was a terrible decision by the coaching staff that perpetuated Mason’s waning confidence.
Since then, things have not been the same emotionally, mentally, competitively and therefore statistically. Mason looks distracted. He’s still lacking confidence. He isn’t quite sure of his positioning and his depth in the crease is all the proof you need to know that he’s struggling internally to compete at the same level as last year. Since the back-to-back in California, Mason has gone 2-2-2 but allowed 23 goals.
In the abysmal loss to Detroit, the wheels fell off completely. He did not have any focus left in the tank to stop the bleeding and things only got worse as the game went on. The decision to put Mason back in the game was a terrible one, as that is the toughest mental hurdle to jump over for a young struggling goaltender. When the timing and the confidence isn’t there, it’s simply not there.
There are times to motivate a goalie and times when they simply need rest. I have no problem calling out Hitchcock on this one. He simply made the wrong decision that night. And it could have a serious negative impact. But Mason has the power to turn things around in an instant. I spoke about rhythm a few weeks ago and how it builds up and then snaps into place in an instant, right? Well, all Mason has to do is build himself up again to right the ship and get back on track. And personally I have plenty of confidence that he will make this happen before the Olympic break.
Overall, there is little hope for Mason right now to play at the same emotional level he did last season. There’s something about the way he reacts to being scored on that has me questioning his confidence. He still has a lot to learn about the mental aspects of the position, which is only to be expected. Technique and skill-wise, Mason is still one of the best goalies out there. But skill will only take you so far. Regardless of how a goalie is playing lately, or how much confidence they have, if they don’t compete to stop every shot, things are only going to get worse.
LEIGHTON LEARNS A LESSON
I’ve spoken ad nauseam regarding the terrible signing of Manny Legace. After he played like I expected in his first two starts, Leighton finally got his chance to stop the bleeding. Sure enough, he came out with confidence and made timely saves as the Hurricanes vaulted to a 3-0 lead. In the second, Carolina was able to extend their lead to 4-1.
And then it happened. It was with less than 14 minutes remaining in the second. Leighton’s confidence was high in the midst of a three-goal lead. Then a scrum took place just to the right of his goal. For an unknown reason, Leighton pulled his mask on top of his head, skated out of his crease, said something to a Wild player, and with a semi-cocky swagger, skated back into his net. I have no idea what he said, but if you were watching, maybe you noticed this too.
A few minutes later, Robbie Earl scored to make it 4-2. Then John Scott made it 4-3 less than a minute later. All of a sudden, Leighton had destroyed his strong focus by this act of removing himself from the crease in order to vent, or act tough. Instead of focusing on his internal compete and his movement, he projected outwardly in an unnecessary fashion. For the rest of the period, his timing was totally off. His play was not nearly as sharp and he was rattled.
But give him credit. When Carolina’s confidence was slipping and the score was 4-3, he made two huge desperate blocker saves to sustain the one goal lead. Then in the third period he made a huge glove save to preserve a 4-4 tie. In the shootout, he was poised and focused and helped Carolina finally put an end to their disastrous 14-game slide.
I don’t need to reiterate the importance of mental toughness in a situation like this. Just realize it was an incredible lesson learned for a young goalie capable of developing into a quality puck stopper. If he’s rewarded with the start in their next game, he could continue to gain confidence and gain more fantasy value in the process. Keep an eye out – he improved two-fold in a single game, all stemming from a non-statistical moment in time.
If you read any other trashy articles or blogs or reports about Leighton discussing how bad his stats are, maybe you’ll read this and realize that stats hardly tell the story of a goalie’s play, and in many cases, their overall fantasy value.
My analysis on Niklas Backstrom can be found in the School of Block forums. Feel free to post any type of goalie question or comment you have for me in there and I’ll answer it as soon as possible!