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Was Haydn Fleury’s Play Deserving of His Latest Run of Scratches?

The defenseman was playing some of his best hockey when he was relegated to part-time duty again. Was it fair?

Carolina Hurricanes v Anaheim Ducks Photo by Robert Binder/NHLI via Getty Images

This was going to be a column taking the Carolina Hurricanes to task for misusing Haydn Fleury.

Now, it’s still an open question about what the best course of action is with the third-year defenseman who’s been a healthy scratch for the past five games and for all but three of the 14 games the Canes have played in the past month. Fleury was, by all accounts, playing the best hockey of his career immediately before Trevor van Riemsdyk returned following shoulder surgery in Anaheim on October 18 - ironically, in the very game where Fleury, at long last, scored his first career NHL goal.

Van Riemsdyk’s return coupled with Fleury’s solid play led Rod Brind’Amour, understandably, to keep both in the lineup. The seven-defenseman experiment, though, was a complete disaster, and was mercifully ended almost as soon as it began.

So off went Fleury to the press box, a place he’s become all too familiar with the past two seasons.

Brind’Amour has long made a point of saying that the best players will play, and with a few minor exceptions, he’s largely practiced what he preached. (“First-line Brock McGinn!” you’re probably yelling, and let’s just say you’re probably not wrong but you probably won’t win the argument either.) And as good as Fleury’s looked this season, it might be a relative comparison to the other players on the team rather than a true measure of his own performance.

Last season, in 20 games, Fleury actually led the team with a 61% mark of expected goals per 60, meaning that of the expected-goal events per 60 minutes that occurred with him on the ice, 61% of them were on the Canes’ side of the ledger. You’d probably win a bar bet or two with that stat.

But this year, Fleury has come back to earth, posting a 52% mark. While that’s light years ahead of where he was two years ago, when he sported a grotesque 46% mark (nearby such defensive luminaries as Dion Phaneuf, Marc Staal and Erik Gudbranson), it ranks ahead of only van Riemsdyk and Joel Edmundson. Both players are demonstrably better in the defensive zone than Fleury, who posts the worst expected goals-against raw number among Canes defensemen at 2.48 xGA per 60. (TVR, for what it’s worth, is the top defenseman at 1.88.)

What’s more, in terms of a basic Corsi per 60 percentage, Fleury has essentially remained at the same spot for three years running. His Corsi per 60 has gone from 51.5% in 2017-18 to 51.3% last year to 52.5% this year. That’s an improvement within the margin of error. Statistically, it doesn’t mean much, and when every other defenseman on the roster bar Edmundson is above Fleury in that metric, there’s little room to argue that a more prolific player is sitting in favor of objectively worse ones.

Even the much-maligned Jake Gardiner, who has started to round into form over the past week or so, is one of three Canes defensemen sitting north of 56% Corsi per 60. That’s three Canes defensemen - Jaccob Slavin and Dougie Hamilton are the other two - who are essentially in the top ten leaguewide among players who have played 200 minutes or more. (Gardiner’s in 11th, only behind Slavin by a couple of hundredths of a percent.) Then Brett Pesce is down in 20th himself.

So, with three top-tier defensemen - say what you will about Gardiner, but the underlying numbers are there, right down to his 93.2 PDO, indicating that he’s likely going through a rough patch rather than being objectively bad - plus a solid #2/3 in Pesce, and a defenseman that’s on a heater in Edmundson, that final spot comes down, as we’ve long thought it would, to van Riemsdyk and Fleury.

Here are their shot rates for and against, from Hockeyviz. First, for van Riemsdyk:

And for Fleury:

The Hurricanes’ problem as a team this season has been preventing goals, not scoring them. While Fleury gives the team more offensive punch, van Riemsdyk clearly suppresses opposing shots at a higher rate, and given that they've only allowed one or zero goals four times this season - three of which came with Fleury scratched - TVR fills a need for a defensively-sound player, while Fleury is a luxury that might just be surplus to requirements at this point.

It took the Canes a while to get their defensive house in order this season, and in many ways it still isn’t entirely there yet. Brind’Amour cautioned about that early in the year, saying that every season requires a feeling-out period where teammates need to get used to playing with each other. Perhaps that’s why Fleury looked so effective early, when things hadn’t settled down yet. Now that they have, though, and the top four is basically locked in at this point, the squeeze is on.

Barring a trade, which is likely the eventual end result one way or another, or an injury, Fleury’s seat in the press box is unlikely to be occupied by anyone else anytime soon. He hasn’t been bad. It’s just that he hasn’t been good enough to make a case for himself to be a regular.

In that regard, over the past three years, little has changed.

Data from Natural Stat Trick except for the shot charts, which are from Hockeyviz.