Those of you who listen to the podcast or have read my work know that my favourite player is Marc-Andre Fleury. Has been since game one and will be past his last game as a Pittsburgh Penguin.
He is also my last emotional tie to the club. He is the last of the players I will analyse with my heart and eyes first and numbers second.
I have resigned myself to the fact that Fleury, the number 1 draft pick of 2003, is a slightly above average goalie. He is also a goalie that cost a couple of Penguins teams a chance at the Cup. He is also the goalie that got the 2008 Penguins to a game 6 of the Cup Finals.
His biggest flaw as a goalie? His highs and lows are too far apart and for too many games.
Even this does not stop me from enjoying watching him play, that includes this season, where he is obviously pressing and not playing up to the better standard he set for himself over the last two and a half seasons.
I am bringing this up because it is players like Fleury who can accidentally put an organisation in a bad spot cap wise. You get attached to the player, the personality, the likability of the player and his family and what he contributes to the community in Pittsburgh.
No one says a bad thing about him, no matter how well or how poorly he is playing on the ice, he is always a great teammate first.
Players like Fleury make GM's look silly or heartless, or both (see goalies re Vancouver). But it takes a smart GM to find ways to make the team better, and trying to detach yourself from the human element of an asset would be the hardest.
This is where the advanced stats movement has helped me understand my favourite player better, this is where I stopped getting personally upset for him and the team when they lost and stopped finding excuses for losses.
It also allowed me to start appreciating other players on other teams, it makes it easier to find players worth watching for the finer points of the game. I will cheat for an example.
Paul Martin came to Pittsburgh and his first year and a half was considered an unmitigated disaster. Credit to Martin he stuck by it and didn't bail on the team as Michalek did, remember they were both given the option.
It is no accident that Kris Letang and Brent Burns played and are playing their best hockey of their career with Paul Martin. It is the little things he does, the ability to create clean zone exits for Burns or his forwards, his great stick at the blue line to stop a controlled entry against, his ability to make a clean first pass to a forward at speed through the neutral zone that creates 3 or 4 shots on goal. The eye test does not tell you these things, why? Because hockey is so fast you cannot process them quickly enough unless you are looking for them. The numbers help you look for them, they help you try to work out why a player is good, they also help you work out who is bad.
It was pretty obvious to Penguins fans that Rob Scuderi was not helping his team win, in fact he was dragging down the a fore mentioned Kris (not Kristopher) Letang. The challenge was working out, what was wrong with his game and why he bled shots against.
Turns out it was his zone exits, or as Penguins fans got to know, throw it off the glass as the traditional 'safe play' (be careful Olli, you're starting to do it a lot too). We all knew he was slow, couldn't help the team transition when the puck was on his stick, but how as a team do you 'hide' a player who cannot skate the puck out of the zone and is not willing to pass to a fast forward at the blueline for fear of a turnover?
The answer inevitably was a trade, but the team tried moving him around the line up until Simon Despres came to the rescue and pushed Scuderi's shots against down.
How does all of this relate back to Fleury and my acceptance of advanced stats?
I can see the brilliance of what he does now better than before, however it does highlight his failings as a goalie too. Or more accurately, it helps remove the blind spots I had being a fan of the person and the hockey player.
The tit for tat on #hockeytwitter is a dumbing down of an important conversation about what as fans we want to watch on the ice. What I like about the Penguins at the moment is they have had an obvious change of direction in management and the hockey they are playing at the moment is a joy to watch.
It is fast, skilled, physical, high event hockey, everything as a fan I want. The cheap garbage they were involved in has been removed from their game too. Whistle to whistle it is great hockey to watch, you have to play great fast hockey to beat them unless you are LA. I have decided LA are the new Red Wings, the amount of obstruction that team is allowed to get away with makes them the most boring and hard to watch team in the NHL.
Once Fleury moves on from the Penguins I will no longer have such a close personal attachment for the team, this is not a slight on the team, but I have grown up wanting a player to do so well for the last 12 years that I do not think at the age of 37 I can put that kind of emotional investment into one player again. Plus there wont be another Flower that plays for the Penguins, ever.
Just because the numbers show he shouldn't be a Penguin anymore does not mean I don't like the person, it just means his time as a $5.75M cap hit asset is done.
If this team from western Pennsylvania wants to win back to back they need a top 4 defenseman and his cap space is what is going to provide that.
It will be a sad day in Penguins history when he leaves, but an important one.
Thanks for reading.