Just before the Penguins’ practice officially commenced Tuesday at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex in Cranberry, Matt Murray, Marc-Andre Fleury and goalie coach Mike Bales shifted around a net in a coordinated effort to deny Bryan Rust, Tom Kuhnhackl and Scott Wilson the chance to slip a puck inside the pipes.
Rust, Kuhnhackl and Wilson spent the previous 20 minutes firing pucks at Murray and Fleury as Bales watched from beside the shooters. The goalie coach mostly kept quiet. When he needed to signal approval during drills, he slapped his stick off the ice a few times.
But the impromptu three-on-three game between the young forwards and Bales and his netminders provided better symbolism. As the Penguins continue their quest to figure out how to best utilize a pair of top-tier goalies, Bales’ priority is not to study shots faced and goals allowed in hopes of identifying the stronger candidate for the starting job. He’s aiming to refine techniques to ensure no pucks slip past the goal line, no matter whether Murray, Fleury — or in Tuesday morning’s case, both — man the net.
“If you’re a goalie geek, you watch the game a little differently than everybody else would,” said Bales, a member of the Penguins organization since 2011 and the team’s goalie coach since ’13. “You’re going to watch the game from the goalie out. Everybody else kind of focuses on the puck.”
The word most often mentioned by Fleury, Murray and coach Mike Sullivan about how the Penguins determine their starting goalie from night to night is “performance.”
“He’s a big help to me, not only in the decision-making process but also in making sure that we pay attention to these guys and explain (decisions) to them so that they understand,” Sullivan said.
But performance is a tough term to define as it relates to netminders.
Wins and goals-against average, the most traditional goalie statistics, are today recognized as little more than bellwethers of overall team play.
The emergence of more detailed game reports in recent years made it easier to break down save percentage by on-ice strengths — five-on-five versus short-handed — and by location. These developments led to the creation of more advanced goalie metrics, but nothing yet accounts for the many complexities of the position.
“We’re looking at rebound control and how they’re tracking the puck, lots of details like that,” Bales said. “When we say performance, we’re not saying you have to win to stay in. That’s not the case. A lot of times, that’s completely out of the goaltender’s control.”
What Murray and Fleury appreciate about Bales is how he not only acknowledges the many nuances of their individual goaltending styles but communicates that awareness during assessments.
“He watches the video extremely close, and any goal that goes in, he analyzes it,” Murray said. “You can tell what’s running through his head, like what you could’ve done differently. He’s always trying to change the game, really, and think of things that nobody really does and try to think outside the box.
“I think that’s what you need in a progressive game like it is today. They’re trying to take away all of our equipment and trying to make our jobs a lot harder, so we’ve got to try even harder to be better. Those little tiny details are what’s going to help you in the long run.”
Bales succeeded Gilles Meloche as the Penguins’ goalie coach after one of the low points of Fleury’s career, the 2013 playoffs, when Tomas Vokoun became the team’s go-to goalie. Fleury’s career numbers rebounded and reached new heights in the three seasons under Bales’ tutelage.
But Bales’ arrival and ascension in the organization also coincided with the drafting and emergence of Murray, who put together a stellar American Hockey League career, wowed during a Stanley Cup run in his rookie season, and remained solid in his first few starts this fall.
“Since he’s came in, he’s always been very open-minded about everything, so he’s easy to talk with,” Fleury said. “As far as right now, I think it’s easy for us, me and Matty, to talk to him about whatever situation we’re in.
“He’s pretty much always steady. He doesn’t get too high, too low. I think that’s how he wants us to be, and that’s how we should be, right? Sometimes, you talk to him about, ‘What did I do there? Should I do something different? Was I wrong?’ You overthink stuff. And he just puts it simple in your mind.”
Bill West is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @BWest_Trib.