Penguins summon red-hot Fleury

By Adrian Barclay

Life has been pretty eventful for Marc-Andre Fleury. Once the baby-faced puck-stopper who was snapped up with the first overall pick at the 2003 draft by the Pittsburgh Penguins, Fleury is now a young man who will soon take on the responsibility of starting goaltender in the NHL.

Fleury has come a long way since he was thrust into the spotlight of the media at 18 years of age as the future of a struggling franchise. He was the rock that promised to take the Penguins deep towards Lord Stanley’s Cup for years to come.

More than two years later, the goaltending phenom appears to be at a crucial junction in his career.

Fleury’s NHL story began almost immediately after he was drafted, when after a fantastic training camp Fleury was thrown straight into the big time, and placed firmly within the crease of the Pittsburgh goal for opening night of the 2003-04 season against the Los Angeles Kings. On that night he gave Penguins fans a glimpse of his talent by making 45 saves from 47 shots, before coming out of his net and watching his future teammate Ziggy Palffy slot an empty netter for a 3-0 Kings victory.

Eventually the porous Pittsburgh defense got the better of him, and by season’s end Fleury had dressed for four different teams, with stints for his junior team in Cape Breton and in the AHL following a World Junior Championship tournament that was memorable to say the least. Fleury was superb in every game for Team Canada until the final period of the tournament when he allowed three unanswered American goals as Team USA won 4-3.

After that tumultuous start to his career, things looked to have settled down considerably for the now 21-year-old goaltender. At the 2005 draft, the Penguins added another first overall pick to their roster when they drafted Sidney Crosby, a move that has taken some of the focus and pressure off of Fleury.

More importantly for the Quebec born goaltender, the Penguins acquired Jocelyn Thibault from the Chicago Blackhawks to man the net while Fleury continued his development in the AHL for his second straight campaign with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. During the lockout season Fleury set new team marks for wins (26) and shutouts (5) with the Baby Penguins.

Unfortunately for Pittsburgh, things haven’t exactly gone to plan. Thibault has been very disappointing and his backup Sebastien Caron has been equally poor most of the time, leading the Penguins to the worst team GAA in the league. Meanwhile Fleury is dominating the AHL, with a 10-0-2 record with a 1.57 GAA and a .939 save percentage.

Despite his excellent numbers, the Penguins had been unwilling to promote Fleury to the NHL full-time for a number of reasons.

First and foremost is the issue of Fleury’s NHL salary, which could see him earn up to $3 million in bonuses should he play more than 25 games. The Penguins are reluctant to commit much more money on top of what is already owed to contracts of recently acquired high priced talent including Ziggy Palffy, Sergei Gonchar and John LeClair.

Another reason to keep Fleury plugging away at a minor league level is the feeling that his development would be hindered by thrusting him into the NHL starter’s role too early. As the top goalie for Wilkes-Barre, Fleury can gain upwards of 50 starts and continue to hone his game with the help of new Penguins goalie coach Shane Clifford.

Indeed, recent history has shown that patience and plenty of AHL seasoning can work wonders with the development of netminders. The Kings’ Jason LaBarbera dominated the AHL for the last two seasons including winning the league MVP in 2003-04 and has immediately stepped into the NHL and had an excellent start. Atlanta’s Kari Lehtonen is widely regarded as the world’s best young goaltender and is expected to have a lot of success when injuries allow him to take the ice. Peter Budaj in Colorado is proving a solid backup and Philadelphia’s Antero Niittymaki who took the Philadelphia Phantoms to the Calder Cup title in the spring is getting a lot more responsibility with the Flyers as Robert Esche overcomes his early struggles.

It is also well documented that goaltenders are generally the slowest to develop of all the positions in the game, with many of the NHL’s top goaltenders hitting the peak of their powers in their late 20’s and early 30’s. Fleury is just 21 and has many years of improvement ahead of him.

But with wins hard to come by in Pittsburgh, GM Craig Patrick finally bit the bullet and promoted Fleury on Monday with the hope that he may be able to save a so far sub-par season at Mellon Arena.

Personnel moves are imminent as Patrick will need to pare the payroll, and the futures of Thibault and Caron in Penguins uniforms are uncertain (Thibault having been put on waivers on Nov. 29).

The Penguins had tried hard to wait on Fleury, but his supreme form has left them with little choice as they question how much more value he can gain out of playing in Wilkes-Barre.

On a recent NHL call-up for the injured Caron, Fleury got the start in Philadelphia, the greatest of all Penguins graveyards in the last decade. Not only did he win the game, but made 45 saves in a stellar performance. The reward for his efforts was an immediate demotion back to the AHL as Caron returned to health.

So after being shuffled around more than a deck of cards at a poker tournament, it looks like Fleury will get his chance to prove he is ready at the top level. Time will tell if the move is the right one, as onlookers remain divided on whether a goaltending change alone can improve the Penguins defensively or whether poor play on the blue line is the main cause. There is no doubt that the Penguins have been substandard on the back end so far this season, and have been causing undue pressure on the netminder on most nights, so Fleury will have to expect some difficult games.

Whatever happens, hockey fans around the world will continue to be glued to the developing story of Marc-Andre Fleury.

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