VANCOUVER -- Ask Pittsburgh Penguins goaltending coach Mike Bales why Marc-Andre Fleury was one of the NHL's best goalies through the first month of this season and perhaps it's fitting his answer involves baseball, a sport where legends are made in October.
When it comes to Fleury's improvements since Bales arrived in 2013, one the biggest was getting the athletic goaltender to stop swinging for the fences when he struggled.
"He was almost like a home run hitter who struck out three times, so he wants to hit a home run to prove to his teammates that 'I can still hit a home run,'" Bales told NHL.com. "Sometimes those guys get back up there and swing even harder and it just compounds the situation."
Goaltending coach Mike Bales helped Marc-Andre Fleury
be one of the NHL's best goalies through the first month of this season. (Photo: Getty Images)
That had become Fleury's tendency when things started to go wrong, especially in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. At the first sign of trouble, he got hyper aggressive with his positioning, overpursuing pucks outside of his crease rather than beating plays to his next save position.
"Yeah, chasing," Fleury told NHL.com, nodding with a grin. "You want to do more, you want to get closer to the puck, you want to stop it even more, but then you just open up all the other stuff. I could get flying everywhere. I have to be in control. I have to relax. It's still a work in progress. I am still working on it, still getting better at it."
The results have been impressive so far this season.
Despite having his bid for a second straight shutout spoiled by two late goals by the Vancouver Canucks on Wednesday, Fleury remained among the NHL leaders in the four major goaltending statistics. He shared first with seven wins and two shutouts, was third with a goals-against average of 1.71, and was fourth with a .939 save percentage.
Perhaps more importantly, he has been acknowledged by teammates as the Penguins' best player to start the season, a big step for a goalie once considered by some observers to be their biggest weakness.
It's the continuation of a tactical evolution under Bales, ongoing work with a sports psychologist, improved team defense, and the experience of being in his 12th NHL season at 30 years old.
Long overlooked behind superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin despite helping the Penguins win the 2009 Stanley Cup, Fleury suffered meltdowns in consecutive playoffs in 2012 and 2013, finishing the latter watching Tomas Vokoun from the bench. Fluery's reputation has been slow to recover, but since Bales arrived that summer, Fleury has 16 shutouts, a total matched only by the Montreal Canadiens' Carey Price.
The biggest changes instituted by Bales can be broken down into two parts: establishing more conservative positional staples and adding the Reverse, or Reverse-VH, technique to Fleury's post-integration repertoire. The new positioning not only has Fleury playing mostly within, or at the edge of his crease, but more within his posts from side to side, and the Reverse allowed him to be more comfortable and active moving into and off those posts.
That may not sound like a big thing, but there's a reason so much of the position-specific practices in the NHL focus on post play tactics. And when you review some of the more cringeworthy goals that plagued Fleury in the playoffs before Bales arrived, several involved pucks banking in from bad angles, often off the goalie's backside as he scrambled outside his posts.
"It was a little bit of a hodgepodge approach to getting back to the posts," Bales said. "Getting comfortable on his posts and being able to feel stable back there when guys were wrapping and jamming pucks, and moving back to his posts on those type of plays when pucks came off the end boards, it gave him a sense of comfort having a set plan coming back to his posts."
If Fleury put himself in positions that required big, powerful recovery pushes earlier in his career, it may have been because he has the physical skill to pull it off. If Fleury isn't the fastest goalie in the NHL laterally, he's certainly near the top of a short list. He was one of the first to lift the knee of his push leg past the middle of his body, loading up for a butterfly push so explosive that some goalie coaches began teaching it.
The problem is staying under control moving that fast, not to mention opening bigger holes.
"It's like that for any goaltender, quite often your strength is also your weakness because you overplay to your strength," Bales said, stressing Fleury is still free to play outside his crease when he reads the right situation. "It's about learning to harness your strengths and use them at the right times and not all the time. We reduced his depth in certain situations and it's made a big difference for him being comfortable enough to stay in his blue plaint a bit more often."
It's a philosophy that takes time to reinforce, with video feedback after games, and in practice, where even in wide-open rush drills it's now rare to see Fleury come flying out of his crease even if it's Crosby, Malkin or Phil Kessel walking in with time and space to pick a corner.
"I work in practice to be deeper, and if I do I will be consistent in the games," Fleury said. "I used to challenge way far out, but Mike gives me little reminders here and there so I don't have to worry about thinking, 'Was that right, was that wrong?' I can be comfortable in the blue."
After save percentages below .900 in four straight playoffs, including an .834 in 2012 and .883 in 2013, Fleury had a .915 save percentage in 2014 and .927 in 2015.
With more conservative positioning has come more consistency for Fleury, who has learned to better manage his passion to win through work with a sports psychologist.
Just as the Reverse helped Fleury get comfortable with his posts, working with a sports psychologist helped him find ways to manage the highs and lows of the position.
"Like at first I was a little uneasy about it, it feels like you are crazy or something, but once you go and talk, it's just more tools to help you out," Fleury said, adding Bales works with them. "I used to slam my sticks and get really mad after goals and stuff, so I think I have learned even though to me it wasn't a big deal maybe to teammates and people watching, they might not take it the right way. It's something I try to be better at; be calm, breathe, and don't break the stick."
Fleury was smiling even wider than usual as he shared this last thought.
"I still break sticks sometimes, just not on the ice," he said.
For the new and improved Fleury, it's all part of being under control, on and off the ice.