Out of every prospect in the AHL right now, perhaps none have a future as clouded as Zachary Fucale. The Quebec native has had a roller-coaster career since turning pro three years ago, showing great highs, but incredible lows in his performances as well. This year was no exception, as Fucale posted the best overall goaltending record of all Laval goalies, but also had the lowest save percentage of his career, coming in at .890.
That is the essence of Fucale’s career up to this point: he often gets the win thanks in part to the team around him, rather than his own performance. In 18 games he was a respectable 10-7-0, but over the course of the season he had only four games when his save percentage was over .900, and six when his goals against was under 3.00.
Those are not exactly encouraging signs from the most experienced goaltender on the Laval Rocket roster. It is only fair to preface this by saying that the defensive structure and penalty-killing units for Laval were abysmal — the worst in the AHL by a wide margin — but at this point, the numbers and performances are right in line with Fucale’s career stats.
At his best this year, Fucale was composed in net, containing his movements and not scrambling around his crease. He tracked the puck well, using his pads and glove to turn away chances, while still having the athleticism to come across his crease to stop chances as well.
Zach Fucale makes an incredible pad save on Anthony DeAngelo. pic.twitter.com/PUR3N9KfWp— Scott Matla (@scottmatla) January 13, 2018
The above save is a good look at what Fucale can do when at his best. He reads the play and tracks the puck to make a key save and keep his team in the lead. He had a number of similar saves over the course of this season where he was forced into making an athletic save on a two-on-one, or to make several rapid saves in quick succession. He also had a decent showing during his short time in the ECHL this year, posting a 2.83 goals-against average and .913 save percentage on a Brampton team that was severely lacking in talent for most of the year.
The problem with Fucale isn’t that he can’t make the big stops in critical situations, it’s that the low-risk shots seem to always find their way through him, and it often cripples the effort his team is putting forth that night. In the same game as the clip above, Fucale let in an absolute stinker of a goal that came from a non-existent angle.
I don't know how this puck gets by Fucale, it's 3-2 Laval now. pic.twitter.com/O9B5VTLChd— Scott Matla (@scottmatla) January 13, 2018
That opposing forward is covered by a defender, and gets off a simple wrist shot from below the faceoff dot, and somehow scores a goal.
That’s the story of most of Fucale’s starts: hope that the weak goal against never came, and when it ultimately did, how he would recover to keep his team in it. To his credit, he did bounce back in some games, and in others the lack of help on the penalty kill, coupled with his own flaws that spoiled any desire to shut down the opposition, led to a number of blowout games.
At 22 years old, time isn’t running out on Fucale as a player, but his ceiling is getting lower with each passing season as he fails to fully assert himself. He’s gone from the AHL starter in St. John’s, to the ECHL starter last year in Brampton, to playing just 29 total games across the AHL and ECHL this past season.
While the starter’s net in the AHL clearly belongs to Charlie Lindgren, losing his backup spot to rookie Michael McNiven doesn’t bode well for Fucale’s overall prospects within the Canadiens organization. Multiple times Sylvain Lefebvre opted to go with McNiven or Lindgren in back-to-back games, as opposed to starting Fucale in one of them.
The saving grace for him may be that Lindgren might be backing up Carey Price next year in the NHL, meaning the net is open for competition in Laval. Unless Antti Niemi comes back, it’s Lindgren’s spot to lose in the NHL, and that enables the Canadiens to give Fucale at least one more year to stake his claim. With Hayden Hawkey still a year away from being pro eligible, and Cayden Primeau just finishing his freshman year, the time is now for Fucale to prove he can still be a top-level goaltending prospect in Montreal.
The talent is there, the issue is getting the mental focus and consistency to the same level. When he’s locked in, he looks like an entirely different goalie, compared to what he looks like on an off game when he doesn’t seem like a goalie who has ever seen the professional level before.
It’s likely that Montreal would bring Fucale back on at least a one-year deal, and to say it’s the biggest of his career would be an understatement. His future in the Canadiens organization likely depends on it.