After watching from the bench as the Penguins won the Stanley Cup, goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury wants to win his starting job back in Pittsburgh. But even if Fleury wins his job back in the short term, it likely won’t change his future.
Marc-Andre Fleury won his second Stanley Cup this off-season, but the Pittsburgh Penguins netminder did so in much different fashion.
When Fleury won his first Stanley Cup with the Penguins in 2008-09, he did so as the 24-year-old starting goaltender who was the future of the organization. But when hoisting the Stanley Cup this past June, he lifted the trophy over his head as a 31-year-old backup goaltender who had lost his job to the bright, young upstart.
Fleury isn’t convinced he can’t take the starting job back, though. Even after Matt Murray secured his place as the starter during the playoffs with one of the best post-season performances in recent memory, Fleury said he feels positive about his role with the team moving forward.
“I love Pittsburgh, and the Penguins are my team,” Fleury told NHL.com’s Robert LaFlamme. “I want to stay with them for the rest of my career. I had some good conversations with management after the season. Nothing is written in stone. I want to come to camp ready to win my job back. I have to get back to the same level of play and help the team, win games.”
That’s much easier said than done for Fleury, and it’s not going to be easy to take back the job from Murray when the 22-year-old is arguably one of the most talented young goaltenders in the world.
While Murray’s sample size is small, it’s been almost unimaginably impressive. In 13 regular season, Murray won nine times, posted a .930 save percentage, 2.00 goals-against average and one shutout. Murray proceeded to go 15-6 in 21 post-season starts with a .923 SP, 2.08 GAA and one shutout en route to winning the Stanley Cup as a rookie netminder. All of this after Murray burst onto the scene with a record-setting AHL goaltending performance in 2014-15, which included rookie and goaltender of the year honors.
Given those numbers and accomplishments, it’s clear to see where Fleury is in tough to get his gig back. But if Fleury wants the top job back, he’ll need to make the most of every start. Thankfully for Fleury, that means he doesn’t have to change much from the past season.
He turned in an impressive performance in 2015-16, tying his career-best .921 SP, posting a 2.29 GAA — the lowest of his career — and racking up 35 wins and five shutouts in 58 starts. Fleury also posted the fifth-best 5-on-5 SP, a mark of .930, of the 15 goaltenders to see at least 2,500 minutes of five-a-side action this past season. He appears to be trending in the right direction, even as he enters the back half of his career.
However, it’s worrisome that Fleury’s numbers this past season aren’t indicative of what he’s done throughout his career. Consistency has been a struggle at times. While he’s had great years, this past season included, he has also posted five 50-plus game seasons where he’s had a sub-.915 SP and bloated GAA. And while it may have been several seasons ago, Penguins fans will recall Fleury’s rough 2009-10 campaign in which he posted a 2.65 GAA and .905 SP.
The past two seasons give some hope that Fleury has found the ability to be consistent, though, and the pressure from Murray might help the veteran netminder keep his focus and maintain a steady performance. Fleury’s 2.32 GAA, .920 SP and 10 shutouts during the 2014-15 season made for strong totals. That he built on those this past season is a big positive. But it really seems as though he’ll need to better his numbers again in order to push Murray into a backup role.
Murray showed at times during the post-season that he’s prone to having a mediocre game from time-to-time, too. There was one four-game stretch where Murray posted sub-.925 SPs in each game, including two games with a sub-.900 SP. Fleury had only one similar stretch during his entire 2015-16 season, which came during a string of four games in November. That’s exactly the kind of opening Fleury could use to assert himself as the starter, and consistent play in consecutive games is going to be Fleury’s best chance at taking back the starting role.
If Fleury needs some inspiration in that regard, he need look no further than Brian Elliott, who pushed Jake Allen for the St. Louis Blues’ starting job in 2015-16 and earned it come playoff time thanks to excellent regular season play. Sadly, though, the parallels for Fleury and Elliott may go beyond their attempts to maintain their starter status and beat out their youthful counterpart for the No. 1 job.
After the best season of his career, Elliott was sent packing by the Blues in June. Allen became St. Louis’ go-to guy, and Elliott is now the Calgary Flames’ starter. The reality is a similar fate will likely befall Fleury.
With no reason to believe Murray will take a step back, Fleury becomes an expensive 1B in the 1A-1B scenario. He has three years of his four-year, $23-million contract remaining, and Murray is in line for a raise following the 2016-17 campaign. Fleury is made all the more expendable when considering the upcoming expansion draft and that only one goaltender can be protected.
Fleury’s numbers the past two seasons point to a goaltender who not only can win the Penguins’ starting job, but one who likely will for at least a few stretches in 2016-17, no matter how brief. Fleury even outright winning the starting job this season isn’t entirely inconceivable. However, starter or not, the fact of the matter is Fleury’s likely not long for Pittsburgh.
Want more in-depth features and expert analysis on the game you love? Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.