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Marc-Andre Fleury, Calvin Pickard give Golden Knights solid goaltending

Experience playing behind overmatched teams likely to come in handy during Vegas' first NHL season

by Kevin Woodley / NHL.com Correspondent

So much for any anticipated run on goaltenders at the NHL Expansion Draft. But what the Vegas Golden Knights lacked in quantity they made up for in quality, on and off the ice.

Despite predictions Vegas might select as many as six goaltenders, the Golden Knights picked the minimum three on Wednesday. Two are under contract for next season, with former New York Islanders backup Jean-Francois Berube set to become an unrestricted free agent July 1. That likely leaves Vegas with former Pittsburgh Penguins starter Marc-Andre Fleury and Colorado Avalanche backup Calvin Pickard to start the season.

There may be more trades coming that add depth, but assuming a one-two punch of Fleury and Pickard to start the season, the Golden Knights already have a duo well-equipped to handle playing for an expansion team from an experience and style perspective.

 

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Fleury is a three-time Stanley Cup champion, but his early experiences behind an overmatched team in Pittsburgh also could come in handy at times with the first-year Golden Knights. Perhaps more important, Fleury learned how to handle ups and downs on the ice during his last four seasons with the Penguins.

Working with goaltending coach Mike Bales, who also has left the Penguins after Pittsburgh won its second straight Stanley Cup, Fleury reined in his tendency to get more aggressive when things started to go south. Where he used to chase the puck, often taking himself further out of his net and relying too heavily on his speed to make up for it, Fleury now uses more conservative positional staples, saving the explosive pushes for when he really needs it.

Fleury's save percentage rose with Bales, averaging .919 during their first three seasons together before dropping to .909 this season. Any lingering concern Fleury's slip this season was related to declining ability rather than adjusting to a reduced workload behind Matt Murray was forgotten when an injury forced Fleury back into the starting role for Pittsburgh's Stanley Cup Playoff opener against the Columbus Blue Jackets. 

Fleury got the Penguins' first nine wins during their championship run, including a Game 7 shutout victory against the Washington Capitals in the Eastern Conference Second Round. He had a .924 save percentage before giving way to Murray, who returned in Game 3 of in the Eastern Conference Final.

Video: OTT@PIT, Gm2: Fleury shuts down Dzingel in close

Fleury's playoff struggles from 2010 through 2013, when he had a combined save percentage of .880 that had some suggesting the Penguins part with him, also disappeared after working with Bales. Fleury has a .920 save percentage in four playoffs since, and the improved balance and control in his positioning and post play have been evident, allowing him to harness his powerful movements until he really needs to unleash them. 

If those situations arise more often with the Golden Knights, Fleury also showed during this postseason that at age 32, he still can make dramatic, dynamic saves. He is capable of the kind of acrobatic stops that can create a buzz in T-Mobile Arena and inspire kids in a new market to want to play the position; however, what really makes Fleury a great fit for Vegas is he no longer relies on such saves. 

Pickard showed signs of similar strides with the last-place Avalanche this season, much like Fleury's early years with the Penguins also prepared him. 

Pickard was never as overaggressive as Fleury, but he did also play largely on instinct and athleticism early in his career, which included a .932 save percentage in 16 appearances in 2014-15 and a .922 save percentage in 20 games in 2015-16. His save percentage dropped to .904 this season, when an injury to starter Semyon Varlamov forced Pickard into 50 games for the Avalanche.

Video: COL@MIN: Pickard covers Haula's backhander in front

But if you watched closely, Pickard arguably played better this season, reducing many of the inefficiencies that plagued his crease movements and post-save recoveries in previous seasons. There was less counter-rotation, less of his arms and body swinging one way when he tried to move the other direction. Though it may have been harder to find the positives during a tough season in Colorado, Pickard's improvements were on full display at the 2017 IIHF World Championship, where his goaltending helped Canada reach the gold-medal game before settling for silver after a shootout loss to Sweden. 

Like Fleury, Pickard possesses the ability and instinct to play outside the box when needed, to abandon technique and rely on instinct in desperate moments. Also like Fleury, he understands if he gets to that point less often, or at least later in the save sequences, he'll be better off in the long run.

As for who else might end up with the Golden Knights, whether it's competing for playing time in Vegas or biding their time in the American Hockey League, Berube might be in the mix with other upcoming free agent options.

With 21 NHL games during the past two seasons, it's harder to get a read on where Berube's game is right now. But after passing on more proven and promising options -- Antti Raanta of the New York Rangers, Philipp Grubauer of the Washington Capitals and Petr Mrazek of the Detroit Red Wings -- to select Pickard and Berube behind Fleury, it's clear the Golden Knights trust the scouting eye of goaltending director and coach Dave Prior to round out their depth chart, whether in free agency or at the 2017 NHL Draft presented by adidas. 

With a track record that includes helping select Varlamov, Grubauer and Braden Holtby in Washington, Prior has earned his reputation for finding talent. Like Fleury and Pickard early in their career, Prior's success often has been rooted in goaltenders who can make athletic saves. The key will be reining in that athleticism on the ice with the Golden Knights.

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