PITTSBURGH, Pa. – As the Pittsburgh Penguins embark on an off-season that figures to include significant changes, coach Dan Bylsma insists the goalie position won’t be one of them.
Bylsma called Marc-Andre Fleury “a franchise goalie . . . this franchise’s goalie” on Sunday, one month to the day after Tomas Vokoun made his Penguins post-season debut in place of Fleury as Pittsburgh’s starter.
Fleury started every playoff game the Penguins played since being taken with the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2003 until Bylsma opted to go with Vokoun for Game 5 of a first-round series against the New York Islanders. Fleury played just 43 minutes the remainder of the playoffs, fueling speculation he might be traded or bought out of his contract this summer.
Not so, Bylsma said Sunday.
“Marc-Andre Fleury, I’m not sure the definition of ‘franchise goalie,’ (but) he’s our No. 1 goalie,” Bylsma said two days after the Boston Bruins completed a stunning sweep of the Penguins in the Eastern Conference finals. “He’s a No. 1 goalie for this franchise and he will be going forward.
“We were in a situation where Tomas Vokoun went into net and won the third and fourth games of a series for us and continued to play in our net. But Marc-Andre Fleury is a guy who’s going to come back to our team and he’s going to be the No. 1 goalie. He’s going to be the franchise goalie. He’s going to be this franchise’s goalie.”
The 28-year-old Fleury has two years and $10 million left on a seven-year contract extension he signed with Pittsburgh after leading the Penguins to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2008.
He backstopped them to the Stanley Cup title a year later, going a combined 30-14 with a 2.31 goals-against average and .920 save percentage over those two post-season runs.
Since, though, it’s been a much different story. Over the past four postseasons, Fleury is 14-16. He hasn’t posted a save percentage of .900 or better or a goals-against average of 2.50 or better in a playoff year since. Last year, in a first-round series defeat to the Philadelphia Flyers, Fleury allowed 26 goals in six games. He gave up 17 in the equivalent of less than five full games this season—including 14 in a three-game stretch before losing his job.
“I didn’t change anything from Game 1 when I had a shutout to Game 2 when I had four goals against,” Fleury said Sunday. “I don’t think there was a technical problem; I think there were a few bad bounces, hit a skate, there was something every game that went in—and then it’s a four-goal game instead of a two-goal game, and that made everything worse.
“Sometimes you start thinking a little more. You want to win and you want to do good for your team. It’s disappointing at the end of the night those four are in the net.”
Vokoun turns 37 in three weeks, so he was never going to be the long-term answer in net for the Penguins. Still, there has been widespread speculation general manager Ray Shero would trade Fleury this off-season to allow Vokoun to be the unquestioned No. 1 in 2013-14.
Another option is a compliance buyout, a mechanism under the new collective bargaining agreement that allows teams to pay a player two-thirds of his remaining salary to remove his salary-cap hit from the ledger. Teams are given up to two of these buyouts to use either this off-season or in 2014.
“I like it a lot here and don’t want to go anywhere else,” Fleury said. “I like the guys in the room here, and feel every year we have a chance at the Stanley Cup. So I’m hoping I can be back.”
That sentiment was echoed by several Penguins during their final appearance as a group. Pittsburgh’s roster includes seven unrestricted and three restricted free agents, plus 12 players about to enter the final year of their contracts. Only five players are signed beyond next season.
“Management and the coaching staff, they’re going to have to make some decisions, we all know that,” defenceman Kris Letang said.
Letang said “of course” he wants to sign an extension with the team that drafted him in 2005 and with whom he blossomed into a Norris Trophy finalist this season. But an inconsistent post-season has left his future in doubt. He and reigning NHL MVP Evgeni Malkin each are entering the final year of contracts and are due extensions.
“I want to be here,” Letang said. “From hearing all the other players, this is the best organization in the league.”
Winger Pascal Dupuis acknowledged he took a so-called “hometown discount” to stay with the Penguins the previous time his contract expired. A pending unrestricted free agent, he said Sunday he wants to stay.
Trade-deadline “rental player” acquisitions Brenden Morrow, Jarome Iginla and Douglas Murray also expressed a desire to re-sign with Pittsburgh, as did restricted free-agent-to-be winger Tyler Kennedy.
“For a guy who hadn’t been to the playoffs in five years to get back there, and knowing that the players they have coming back next year they’re probably going to have the same opportunity they had this year,” Morrow said, “they’re going to be a heck of a team for a long time.”
Bylsma said Sunday he has not yet discussed his future with Shero. Bylsma led the Penguins to the best record in the Eastern Conference this season (36-12), but has been at the helm during playoff losses to lower-seeded teams four consecutive years since guiding the Penguins to the Stanley Cup in 2009.
Captain Sidney Crosby was one of many players supporting the coach, saying “we were well-prepared” and “we appreciate everything our coaches do for us.”
But even Crosby acknowledged that change of some sort is inevitable on the heels of a two-goals-in-four-games performance by the high-flying Penguins in a conference final sweep.
“You know what, there’s a lot of things that can happen when you don’t meet the expectations,” Crosby said. “And they’re pretty high for us. But I don’t think there’s anything (the coaches) could have done differently. We were put in a situation to be successful.”