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Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Thoughts on Fleury by @mikeknerr67

After any playoff loss, there are important questions a team must ask about how to improve for the following season. After a stunning and humiliating loss like the Penguins experienced Fridaynight, the questions become a lot more demanding, and people begin to demand that heads roll.

Since the game 2 meltdown, and especially after Friday night, fans and media folks have pointed fingers at probably every single person in the organization except Tomas Vokoun and Dana Heinze. Everyone has an opinion on how to turn things around over the offseason (Fire Bylsma! Trade Letang! Scrap the defense and start over!), but one of the most popular opinions right now is the one I simply can't understand: the growing conviction that Marc-Andre Fleury has played his last game as a Penguin.

Fleury has quickly become the scapegoat for the Penguins' recent playoff failures (with Bylsma probably a close second). But Fleury had nothing to do with this 3rd round collapse, and ultimately the starting goaltender for the series was immaterial - no goalie can win a series in which the team in front of him can't score. It's unclear how trading or buying out MAF would solve that problem.

I highly doubt that Bylsma turned to Vokoun in game 5 with the expectation he would start the remainder of their playoff games. Vokoun simply did nothing to justify turning the net over to anyone else, Fleury or otherwise. While Fleury was admittedly terrible in game 4 of the first round, his games 2 and 3 were not nearly as bad as the number suggest (go back and watch them if you don't believe me). When was the last time Fleury had a responsible defense in front of him in a playoff game? Game 7 of the Tampa series? Before that?

My point is, Fleury is still a good goalie and he proved that all year. Even very good goalies will look very bad if the team in front of them doesn't play responsibly. Just look at what happened to Craig Anderson in the second round. Or go back further to late February when Vokoun let in 6 goals against Philly and Montreal thanks to the defense-optional approach the Pens were taking at that point. In March when the team began to turn things around and play responsibly, it's no coincidence that both goalies began to look sensational. It's also no coincidence that some of the league's best goalies statistically (think Quick, Lundqvist, Rask) play behind the league's best defensive systems.

All that said, the biggest reason the Penguins are not going to just trade/buy out Fleury this summer is because there is no ready replacement. Is Shero going to gamble that Vokoun can play a full season, starting 60-70 games, and then still play like he did this spring in the playoffs? And after next year? Before we anoint Eric Hartzell or Jeff Zatkoff as the goalie of the future, it might be helpful to actually see them play in the NHL first, to make sure they're not John Curry and Brad Thiessen part two.

In terms of the free agent market, Ryan Miller and Roberto Luongo have all of Fleury's alleged flaws without his upside. The list of goalies in the league who have won a Stanley Cup is not a long one. The goalies I'd trust more than Fleury might include Lundqvist, Quick, Price, Rask, Niemi, and that's about it. Since none of those names are likely to end up sewn into black and Vegas gold anytime soon, it might be a bit premature to give up on a goalie who owns most of the team's goaltending records and whose career wins aren't far off from Brodeur at a similar point in his career.

Setting aside all of those arguments however, even if the team truly has lost confidence in MAF, his value will never be lower than it is now. If the team truly believes Fleury is no longer a goalie who can lead them to a Cup, they can move him at the trade deadline once he's increased his value with another strong regular season.

I don't think that's the answer though. Rather than a new goalie, the team needs a different approach to their defense. I don't know whether that means a new head coach (and I don't envy Shero that decision), but I do think it means Reirden needs to go and the system needs to be reevaluated somewhat. Meloche's pending resignation could be a big factor too, with him taking the bullet instead of Fleury. A good goalie coach can make a huge difference for the confidence and technique of a goalie, and Fleury's struggles have constantly boiled down to coachable issues. It's time to see what a new voice can do.

Fleury's chances to prove himself may still be running out quickly, but you can bet Shero won't make a hasty emotional decision on the team's goaltending future based on a playoff in which Fleury had 1 great game, 1 terrible game, and 2 average games. If we are to believe Bylsma's comments today regarding Fleury's status as the Penguins' franchise goaltender and number one going forward, the organization isn't quite ready to give up on the Flower.

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