This is the fourth installment of my summer series on the players and coaches that will have major storylines surrounding them in the 2013-14 season. If you like what I have to say, please follow me on Twitter @DanMountSports.
Not that long ago, Marc-Andre Fleury was hailed as a man that made a huge save to help the Pittsburgh Penguins win the 2009 Stanley Cup after tossing his body in front of a Niklas Lidstrom rebound attempt in the dying moments of game seven to preserve a 2-1 win. The former number one overall pick in the 2003 draft was hailed as one of the up and coming goalies that could be a future star.
My how times have changed.
After hoisting the Cup in 2009, it’s been a difficult road for Fleury. After the Pens were knocked out by the Montreal Canadiens in the Eastern Conference Finals in 2010, he has struggled mightily in his last three playoffs. Pittsburgh was eliminated by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round of the 2011 playoffs in a seven-game series. Fleury was good statistically, but laid an egg in game five when the Pens lost 8-2. (Fleury gave up four goals on 14 shots before he got pulled.) Fleury and the Penguins then were beaten in 2012 in six games by the rival Philadelphia Flyers. The defense could not stop Claude Giroux and the high-scoring Flyers.
Pittsburgh did earn the top seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs and took on the eighth-seeded New York Islanders. After Fleury got a shutout in game one, Pittsburgh could only manage splitting the first four games against the lightly regarded Islanders. Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma made the decision to start Tomas Vokoun in game five. Bylsma’s gamble paid off as Pittsburgh dispatched New York and then advanced past the Ottawa Senators in round two to advance to the conference finals.
Pittsburgh then faced the Boston Bruins in the conference finals and Fleury got another shot in game two after Vokoun was pulled. However, Fleury was just as ineffective as Vokoun was in the rest of the game and never made another appearance in the series. (Which ended in a four-game sweep in favor of Boston.)
So what is next for Fleury after his sub-par performances the last couple of postseasons? Some experts were calling for the Penguins to get rid of Fleury. (Some were asking for it as early May.) Defenders of MAF still think he’s a good goalie, but it gets harder to defend him after plays like this. (There are plenty of other examples of other goaltending blunders that he’s made.) Those defenders keep shrinking in size and many feel Vokoun is doing the job just fine and can make Fleury expendable.
There are a couple of other factors that are working against the embattled netminder. Fleury’s contract calls for him to get $5 million this coming season and they still have to worry about paying other key players. (Especially after signing Evgeni Malkin to a big extension this offseason.) Vokoun is a serviceable option and they have a highly-touted young goalie the team just signed from Quinnipiac University in Eric Hartzell. The young goalie had very impressive stats of 30 wins and a goals against average of 1.57 for the NCAA-runner up Bobcats. Hartzell may be a couple of years away from playing, but he has all the potential of being a solid NHL goalie.
However, Fleury still has at least one defender and that is a pretty big one in coach Dan Bylsma, who said Fleury is still the number one goalie in Pittsburgh. Bylsma called the troubled goalie a “franchise goalie… this franchise’s goalie” shortly after the Pens were knocked out. Fleury has also been going to a sports psychologist this summer in hopes to reclaim his game. Also, Penguins General Manger Ray Shero is reluctant in breaking up the core of his young team that Fleury is a part of. ESPN’s Craig Custance wrote:
It works on a spreadsheet, but it's the kind of move that could upset the balance of a very tight-knit group. Fleury is part of the Penguins' talented core and has grown up with guys like Sidney Crosby, Malkin and Kris Letang. He's their Grant Fuhr.
Throughout the situation, he’s been quiet and supportive of Vokoun and hasn’t blasted his coach or management. He hasn’t asked to be traded or to get rid of Vokoun. The playoffs loses also haven’t been all of his fault as Pittsburgh’s free-wheeling style is great for the regular season, but has only translated into the one championship in 2009. Guys like Kris Letang are listed as a defenseman, but play a more offensive style. The Pens really need to shore up the defense first because they have elite playmakers that can help them hoist another Stanley Cup.
Dan Mount is an NHL columnist for TJRSports.com. He is based out of Watertown, NY.