Pens' Fleury joins the elite
It sometimes seems as though Marc-Andre Fleury has been around the Penguins longer than Mellon Arena.
Longer than Ed Johnston, even.
Fleury's first NHL roommate was Marc Bergevin .
But the astonishing truth is that old-man Fleury enters his sixth season of professional hockey as the NHL's second-youngest starting goaltender.
He is 23.
Only Montreal's Carey Price, who turned 21 last month, is younger.
"It's funny," Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik said. "I remember three years ago or so, some of (Fleury's) critics were already saying, 'Oh, what a bust he is.'
"Well, most goalies don't come into the league until 22 or 23, and he's already played, like, 170 games."
Fleury has played 173 regular-season games, to be precise. But it was his 20-game playoff run last spring that elevated him to a whole new stratosphere and made him $35 million on a seven-year contract.
A year ago, you couldn't find Fleury among anybody's top 10 goalies. Today, he could easily be in your top five. He was 14-6 with a ridiculous .933 save percentage and three shutouts in the playoffs. That came on the heels of a piping hot finish to the regular season, after he returned from a high-ankle sprain.
Now, let's not get carried away. Fleury still needs to prove he can finish the deal. He also needs to prove he can put up great numbers over the course of a six-month season -- and the Penguins will need him playing at a high level from day one -- but think about it: If you were starting a franchise tomorrow, how many goalies would be an automatic choice over Fleury?
I wouldn't take anybody over 30 in that circumstance -- the Martin Brodeurs and Evgeni Nabokovs of the world -- because Fleury is so much younger. Roberto Luongo is very good, but he turns 30 this season. Henrik Lundqvist would be a solid choice, as would Price. But you'd have to think about Fleury, just as the Canadian Olympic committee might have to consider him for the 2010 Games in Vancouver.
Fleury sure hopes so. It's the dream of every Canadian hockey player to represent his country.
"It's in the back of my mind," Fleury admitted. "We'll see."
We'll also see if Fleury has put Game 6 of the Stanley Cup final behind him. I'm guessing, because of his easy-going demeanor, that he'll be fine.
Still, it hurt for a while. That became clear when I asked Fleury late in training camp whether Henrik Zetterberg's goal from Game 6 bothered him into the summer break.
"The one where I sat on it?" he said. "Oh yeah. (Expletive) yeah. That stunk."
Flash back to June 4 at Mellon Arena. Detroit was leading, 2-1, when Zetterberg unleashed a harmless-looking, third-period wrist shot from the left circle. The puck squeezed between Fleury's pads, dropped to the ice and died, inches from the goal line.
Fleury, sensing danger, did what came naturally: He sat down.
"You know, many times I do that," he said. "The puck is lying behind me, so I just lay down on it. This time, it's the Stanley Cup final, sixth game, and I don't know why, but it springs into the net, and we lose."
To his horror, Fleury had accidentally propelled the puck into the net with his backside -- not exactly a Kodak moment. When the buzzer sounded on the 3-2 loss, he felt horrible. The feeling lingered until he finally decided he'd had enough. It was time to look ahead.
"I'm done with it," Fleury said. "I swore enough about it. Nothing I can do anymore. I don't think we lost the finals on one goal, you know what I mean• I feel bad because I kind of put it in, but it was a best-out-of-seven. They had a good team, and they beat us."
It wasn't a bad goal that beat the Penguins. A bad start and an excellent team beat them. The Penguins were star-struck for the first two games. The stage was too big. Once they settled down, they played four consecutive one-goal games against a highly skilled, battled-hardened opponent.
Now, it's time to start anew - and nobody on this team is more important than old-man Fleury.