Unmasked: Fleury needs to find comfort level following trade to Wild

That’s part of the challenge facing Fleury after being acquired in a trade from the Chicago Blackhawks on Monday in exchange for a conditional first-round pick in the 2022 NHL Draft.

“It is a little bit [nerve-wracking],” Fleury said at his introductory press conference in Minnesota on Monday. “Just to get comfortable again and with not that many games left before playoffs start. Things [have] to happen quick.”

Fleury is expected to make his debut against the Columbus Blue Jackets in a home game on Saturday. At that point, the Wild will have 20 games remaining in their season.

It helps that Fleury has switched teams twice in the past five seasons, first after being selected by the Vegas Golden Knights in the 2017 NHL Expansion Draft following his first 13 seasons with the Pittsburgh Penguins, and again after being traded by to the Blackhawks on July 27.

Having gone through the process of figuring out a new system and learning to read off new teammates should help ease Fleury’s transition, but it’s a lot different doing it in-season, in part because there’s not a lot of time — or margin for error –left.

The Wild (38-20-4) are in a tight race for the Stanley Cup Playoffs, sitting second in the Central Division with 80 points, one point ahead of the St. Louis Blues and two points ahead of the Nashville Predators.

Ryan Miller was one of the most recognizable goalies to be moved before the NHL Trade Deadline, traded from the Buffalo Sabers to the Blues on Feb. 28, 2014.

“When I switched teams and had a training camp, there’s less pressure to get things up and going with that long season ahead of you, almost like you can make some mistakes here and there,” Miller said. “When it’s the deadline, it does feel like quite a bit. You want to play your own game, you want to fit in, you want to get hot at the right time, and there’s tremendous pressure to perform. Having a little time to sort that out is ideal, but at the deadline you’re immediately playing important games.”

Miller did not provide the boost the Blues were hoping for. He went 10-8-1 with a .903 save percentage in 19 regular-season games. In the playoffs, the Blues lost in six games to the Blackhawks in the first round and Miller was 2-4-0 with an .897 save percentage.

There are several factors that can determine how easy a late-season transition is for a goalie. First, does the system the team plays fit the strengths of the goalie?

Fleury struggled his first month in Chicago, going 1-7-0 with an .881 save percentage before the Blackhawks replaced coach Jeremy Colliton with Derek King on Nov. 6. Fleury has said improved defensive play and the presence of fewer odd-man rushes after the coaching change explained his turnaround more than needing time to adjust. Fleury had a .913 save percentage after the coaching change.

“There’s that mindset from some that a good goalie should be able to handle all situations and be able to adjust, but there are guys that do have strengths and weaknesses, so maybe it’s more about the fit,” Miller said. “I would be looking for a fit.”

The good news for Fleury and the Wild is that, like the Blackhawks under King, the Wild don’t surrender as much off the rush, forcing teams to try and generate offense in the offensive zone, which is a game in which Fleury typically excels . Even if the chance types match a goalie’s strengths, there are still adjustments to me made in learning how new teammates handle each situation.

Being able to anticipate and trust what teammates are going to do in specific circumstances is every bit as important for goalies as figuring out what the opponent is trying to do.

For all the talk about reading the offensive players while the puck moves around the zone, it’s more often about knowing when, where and how — sometimes if — your defensemen or back-checking forwards are going to pressure the attacking players. When a goalie chooses which side of a screen to look around it’s part of a system, and there is a trust that the defenseman is on the same page and working to take away the lane on the other side of that screen.

In just about every situation, goalies make decisions about positioning and save selection based upon being able to predict what his teammates will do. Those decisions, over time, become instinctual.

“The systems definitely matter, especially on the penalty kill because the systems give the structure your entire team is trying to work behind, but you also have to understand the personalities and nuances of the players implementing those systems,” said Mike McKenna, who played for 23 teams in three professional leagues during a 14-season career that ended in 2019.

McKenna, who works as an analyst for Daily Faceoff, switched teams during a season 12 times, either through promotion, waivers or trades. He knows better than most the factors that go into getting comfortable behind new teammates.

“I think it’s relationship based as much as it is learning the system because when you are facing odd-man rushes or getting out to handle a puck, you are dependent on what you have seen previously out of a teammate,” McKenna said. “If it’s a 2-on-1 and you know your defenseman likes to force, what his timing is, that gives you extra clues to be able to make a save.”

McKenna believes there’s still enough time for Fleury to get comfortable with those tendencies in Minnesota, even if he only plays half their remaining games, in part because the learning process continues as a backup, watching from the bench.

“If you’ve played as long in the NHL as Fleury, he’s seen all different systems, but he still needs to see it implemented in real time again to really get the feel,” McKenna said. “That’s where I do think playing eight to 10 games, watching a dozen games, it takes a month or so before you start to feel comfortable.”

Fleury and the Wild have five weeks until the end of the regular season, which should be enough time, but it doesn’t leave a lot of wiggle room.

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