Tonight has been circled on a lot of calendars since the schedule was released. The return of Marc-Andre Fleury to Pittsburgh. There isn’t much to say here that hasn’t been beaten to death, reincarnated and then beaten again but what the hell, I’ll do my best.
June 21st, 2003:
With the first selection in the 2003 NHL entry draft the Pittsburgh Penguins choose Marc-Andre Fleury
The Penguins were coming off of back to back years of failing to reach 30 wins, going 28-41-8 in 2001 and 27-44-6 in 2002. In that 2002 season Johan “MOOOOOOOOOOSE” Hedberg and Jean-Sebastian Aubin combined for a .898 save percentage and a 2.93 GAA. Craig Patrick had already focused on the defense by taking Ryan Whitney number 5 in the 2002 draft, and sought to sure up the back-end with the drafting of this stringy kid with a bright smile.
At 19 years old Marc-Andre made his Penguins debut and immediately became known for wearing pads that made Ronald McDonald jealous.
Fleury would play in 21 games his first year, going 4-14-2 with a .896 sv% and a 3.64 GAA. He would be one of 5 goaltenders to play for the Pens that season, a quintet that would finish the season with a .893 sv% and a 3.51 GAA as the team stumbled to a 23-47-8 record. The record was bad enough to earn the second overall pick in the upcoming draft, a pick Patrick used to draft another scrawny kid, this one from Russia
The following season would be locked out and in the process the Penguins would lose their starter as Hedberg would head to Dallas for a brief stint. When hockey resumed in 2005 there was another draft on the table, and with it came the selection of Sir Crosby. Suddenly the Penguins turned 3 top 5 picks into a trio that would reshape the franchises history.
The 2005-06 season was Fleury’s second season of his career and his first as a starter. At 21 he played in 50 games and went a dismal 13-27-6 with a slightly improved .898 sv% and 3.25 GAA. The team would finish 22-46-14 on their way to yet another early first round pick, and Craig Patrick would not be offered a contract extension after 17 years at the Penguins helm.
The 2005-06 Penguins looked nothing like the teams that had graced the ice in Pittsburgh the previous 4 seasons, and they always turned back to that kid smiling behind his mask. On January 24th Mario Lemieux announced his second retirement from the game of hockey, leaving the destiny of the Penguins up to these young kids. Fleury would play 67 games that year, going 40-16-9 with a .906 sv% and a much improved 2.83 GAA. His play in net lead the team to the playoffs that season, they haven’t missed a postseason since, and without Fleury backing that team up along with the miraculous play of so many role players there wouldn’t be a game in Pittsburgh tonight.
The following year was the year of the dreaded high ankle sprain and Fleury only saw action in 35 regular season games finishing 19-10-2. None of that was remembered however once April started when Fleury took the Penguins to within 2 wins of the Stanley Cup after posting a 14-6 record in the playoffs with a stout .933 sv% and a 1.97 GAA. The Penguins had found their goalie of the future, and the future was happening right before our eyes. The following season Fleury posted a 35-18-7 regular season before leading the team to its second consecutive Stanley Cup Final appearance. This time Fleury went 16-8 while facing 686 shots and every single one of us will remember the 686th shot until the day we die:
With that save Fleury would join Tom Barrasso on the list of goalies that carried the Penguins to the Cup. The expectations for the Flower jumped to near impossible levels (sound familiar coughMurraycough), as the 24 year old was the new Barrasso.
The Falling Out (2010-2014)
The 2009-10 season was fair the Fleury and the Penguins, but as they chased a third straight finals appearance they ran into a hot goaltender and a Montreal team that fate wouldn’t allow to lose. Fleury finished the postseason with a 7-6 record as the team fell in the second round.
The following three seasons are where the tides turned for the Penguins and Fleury. With general manager Ray Shero ferociously spending to the salary cap at the expense of assets and draft picks the team loaded up year after year to prepare for deep runs that all ended prematurely. 2010-11 saw the Penguins and half of their starting roster face the Tampa Bay Lightning. With a 3-1 series lead the Pens would give up 8 goals to the Lightning in game 5, eventually losing the series in 7. Fleury would finish with a .899 sv% and 2.52 GAA. In 2011-12 the Penguins were the “team to beat” and luckily drew the Flyers in round one. After a bizarre missed offsides call the Flyers handled the Penguins in 6 games, with Fleury struggling to a .834 sv% and a dismal 4.63 GAA, and many fans started suggesting out loud that he may not be the right goalie for the Pens.
In the summer of 2012 the Penguins made a splash at the draft when they traded Jordan Staal while drafting two defensemen in the first round and then a questionable choice on a scrawny goalie named Matt Murray late in the third round.
In 2012-13 things would surely change for the Penguins, and they did… at the hands of Thomas Vokoun. Fleury again struggled in the first round and only played 5 games total (starting 4) despite the team reaching the Eastern Conference Final. Dan Bylsma was adamant about not changing his system so the benching of Fleury was a huge deal at the time, and even the biggest Fleury supporter is full of shit if they tell you right now that they weren’t anti-Fleury following this playoff run.
In the summer of 2013 the Penguins traded up at the draft to select Tristan Jarry making it back to back years that they selected mid-draft goaltender prospects. Fleury remained the go to man and 2013-14 once again saw the Pens finish on top of the Metro division and enter the playoffs as a Cup favorite. After handling the Blue Jackets in round 1 despite struggles from the net minder, they once again faced the Rangers and once again lost to the Rangers. Fleury had one of his better postseasons that year posting a .915 sv% and a 2.40 GAA. The following season the Penguins made a front office overhaul, the team backed into the playoffs and were once again handled by the New York Rangers.
Writing on the Wall
The Penguins weren’t playing well in the early portion of the 2015-16 season but Fleury was there to keep the team in playoff position. When the regular season was said and done he had played in 58 games going 35-17-6 while posting a tied for career best .921 and a career best 2.29. Then Fleury suffered a concussion the final weeks of the regular season and Matt Murray stepped in. Murray won the first round of the playoffs and just kept winning going 15-6 with a .923 and a 2.08 GAA while becoming the third goalie to lead the team to a Cup. Fleury played 2 games in the run, starting 1 in the Eastern Conference Finals and losing it. The following season divided the fanbase and for some reason fans actually started cheering against one of their teams own players. While splitting the duties with Murray Fleury played in 38 games struggling to an 18-10-7 record with a .909 sv% and a 3.02 GAA. The roles were reversed when the playoffs started as Murray was the one injured and Fleury took over. Fleury would lead the team through the mighty Capitals before relinquishing his role to Murray again. It would be the last post season for the Flower in Pittsburgh.
Expansion Draft and Now
The team knew it couldn’t keep both goalies and most reasonable people saw the benefit of keeping a 22 year old goalie with a ton of upside over a 32 year old goalie. It is hard to see a fan favorite go, especially when the player is so nice and such a great member in the community. Jim Rutherford and the Penguins made the decision to move on with Murray and a lot of people like to blame them for that decision while failing to realize how hard the decision and conversations with Fleury had to have been. It’s the undesirable side of sports, the business aspect, and it is not the same as the Pirates trading away McCutchen.
Fleury deserved a chance to be the man again and it was only going to happen with a new logo on his chest. Believe it or not you can still cheer for Fleury without hating Murray, after all it isn’t Murray’s fault that he wanted to be successful, hell of a thing to blame a guy for. Fleury has embraced his role so far on Vegas where he has started 21 games going 15-4-2 with what would be a career bests .939 sv% and a 1.84 GAA.
For 13 years Fleury put the skating penguin on his chest. He saw time in 691 games including 536 starts during his tenure in Pittsburgh, finishing with a career average of .912 sv% and a 2.58 GAA. For 13 years we cheered his athleticism while jeering his puck handling. For 13 years we were graced by his smile and we will get to see it in Pittsburgh once more tonight.
Cheer for Fleury, but don’t be surprised if Sid scores number 400 on the smiling goatee tonight; I’m sure Fleury will make his attempted save look extremely athletic.