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Goaltending has become an issue for the Golden Knights

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Is it fair to blame the 9-12-1 record all on the defense? Or is Marc-Andre Fleury faltering right now?

NHL: Vegas Golden Knights at Montreal Canadiens
Vegas Golden Knights defenseman Jon Merrill (15) collides with teammate goalie Marc-Andre Fleury (29)
Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

A quick thank you to Natural Stat Trick for providing the statistical innovation that made this piece possible and more substantial.

Marc-Andre Fleury is 66th in the league in goals saved above average (at even strength). He’s fifth-to-last in that category. The four goaltenders ranked lower are Martin Jones, Jake Allen, Mike Smith and Jacob Markstrom. These are goaltenders one would call “iffy”. This is not company Fleury should want to keep. This is not the company the Vegas Golden Knights should want him to be in.

But he’s there. He’s bad across multiple categories this season. At even strength, Fleury is 52nd in save percentage (with a .901), 54th in high-danger save percentage (.787) and 47th in low-danger save percentage (.965). Those aren’t quality numbers and it’s not why the Knights extended him to the deal that they gave him or why they agreed to keep him on.

This is not just because of a lackluster defense, either. The 122 high-danger shots the Golden Knights have allowed at even strength are 19th-most in the NHL. They’ve allowed 133 medium-danger shots and 183 low-danger shots (19th and 29th in the league, respectively).

Essentially, the Knights have been forcing teams to turn the puck over and are limiting the number of chances through a ferocious forecheck and good defense. That was before a recent real bad stretch. This should establish that the defense has not been the sole problem this season, however, yet people are reluctant to blame Fleury.

It’s understandable why. If the Knights had come any closer to winning the Stanley Cup last season — forcing a game six or game seven — it’s possible Fleury could have been a frontrunner in the conversation for the Conn Smythe. Hell, if he’d had a much better outing in three of those games, he could have locked it up. The Golden Knights don’t get to the Stanley Cup Final without Fleury. Las Vegas should want to protect him.

But he’s not immune to criticism, especially this season. The simple truth is that he hasn’t played well enough to help the team succeed. Not that Malcolm Subban has fared any better (Fleury has a .773 HD save percentage across all strengths, Subban has a .771. Fleury has a .965 LD save percentage, Subban has a .980).

Subban had somehow not seen a high-danger shot against this season before the game against Calgary. That could be an indication that the team is playing better in front of him than in front of Fleury, which could both devalue Subban’s numbers and also make them more important.

The penalty kill has also been one of the best in the league in terms of possession this season. The penalty kill’s 87 shots against rank 21st in the league, and the Knights are also 21st in high-danger shots against, allowing just 26.

Yet the goaltenders have given up 10 goals on those 26 chances. That’s a .615 save percentage, good for last in the league. If this doesn’t mean enough to you, let’s go to the heat maps.

In both cases, the defense is doing enough to limit chances. The threat indicates league average, which means the Golden Knights’ defense has been excellent on the penalty kill and above average at even strength.

The Knights limit chances on the royal road, they take away whole swaths of the ice, and while the left-side defensemen need to do a better job at both even strength and on the penalty kill, the Golden Knights have been doing a good job of taking away ice and lanes for players to shoot.

So the goaltending is clearly an issue. How do we fix it?

Well, as Fleury’s most recent doughnut taught us, sometimes the Golden Knights need to be outshot. Vegas is 5-8-1 when outshooting the opponent and 4-4-0 when either getting outshot or putting up the same number of shots.

So maybe Fleury and Subban are volume goaltenders. Perhaps they need multiple shots to get into their groove early and then stay there, and Vegas forcing it down other teams’ throats is somehow... unhelpful.

Maybe it is the defense needing to cut down on more rebounds and high-danger chances, however few they may be allowing already.

Or maybe Fleury (and Subban) just need to be better, and it really is that simple. Maybe the defense is doing as much as it can (both without and now with Nate Schmidt, who is getting worked in gradually), and up to this point it’s been really good. Maybe the expectations need to be less focused on the defense and more focused on the man in the golden mask.

It’s probably that last one.