Marc-Andre Fleury is no different than any other veteran NHL goaltender insofar as he realizes all the regular-season success in the world doesn’t matter if he falters in the playoffs. So he also has to know that, after an utterly disastrous end to Game 4 of Pittsburgh’s first round series against Columbus, he’d awaken this morning to a chorus of critics calling for management to bench him for the rest of the post-season and end his time with the franchise in the summer.
I’m one of those critics. After Wednesday’s implosion, it's clear the Penguins no longer can justify going back to Fleury and expect him to regain the form that helped the organization win a Stanley Cup in 2009.
I know we’re supposed to say hockey is a team game, that Pens captain and superstar Sidney Crosby hasn’t scored in his past nine playoff games, that Fleury played a strong 59 minutes and 40 seconds in Game 4 before the wheels fell off. All that is true, but when you sink massive amounts of time, money and effort into a car year after year to get you from Point A to Point B, you’re not happy if the engine explodes three feet from Point B on a number of your most recent trips. You expected and paid for the full journey and you didn’t get it – and regardless of what that car did for you in the past, nobody would fault you for abandoning it at the side of the road in favor of a ride you trusted.
That’s where I think the Pens are with Fleury. His playoff performances since 2009 – which have run a very short gamut between questionable and appalling – provide more than enough rope for a hanging noose. In 2010, his save percentage was .891; the following year, it was .899; in 2012, it was .834; last season, it was .883; and against the Jackets, it’s at .903. This is simply unacceptable. You can make excuses for any one of those showings, but the fact is he’s 29 years old and has a recent track record of not coming up big when the games matter most.
Some of you will scoff at the idea of taking Fleury off the ice and replacing him with NHL rookie Jeff Zatkoff or veteran Tomas Vokoun. I’m not going to guarantee either of those two would steal games or even provide slightly above-average goaltending in however many playoff games Pittsburgh has left. But neither has let down the Pens to the degree Fleury has. And little-known goalies like Zatkoff (who has just 20 games of NHL experience) have shown the ability to surprise the opposition in the post-season. For example, Braden Holtby did so for the Capitals in 2012 after having only 21 NHL games under his belt, and he posted a .935 SP.
How many more years of Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in their prime have to be flushed down the dumper before enough is enough in Pittsburgh? It was admirable for Penguins GM Ray Shero to support Fleury after his first couple years of playoff disappointments, but to keep turning to him now smacks of stubborn denial in the face of damning evidence. He’s got one year left on a contract that pays him $5 million, and if the Pens can’t find a trade partner in the summer, they can use one of their amnesty buyouts on Fleury and start anew. There will be many options (including Toronto’s James Reimer, Anaheim’s Jonas Hiller and St. Louis’ Ryan Miller) from which to select.
The only option they can’t choose is the status quo. Fleury will have another opportunity to rebuild his reputation, but it shouldn’t come with the Penguins. That ship has sailed, and Wednesday night, it sank just before reaching port.