Starkey: The Fleury dilemma
First, an undeniable truth: Marc-Andre Fleury has regressed under Dan Bylsma, who is 16 games into his second full season as coach.
That does not mean Bylsma is liable for the diminishing returns of a franchise cornerstone, one who has four years and $20 million remaining on his contract after this season. The player always is most responsible for his performance.
But the coach hasn't helped.
Let's be honest: This team is not likely to win another Stanley Cup without Fleury at his best, and it's been a while since we've seen him perform at a consistently high level. Somehow, some way, that needs to happen.
The Penguins changed Fleury's practice and pre-game routines this season, to no avail. Bylsma has called out Fleury, in so many words, after certain games. Didn't work. Bylsma rewarded Fleury by giving him a surprise start Saturday in Phoenix, then ripped him out of the game after Fleury allowed two goals in 6 minutes, 56 seconds. Last season, Fleury was pulled a league-high eight times.
That's no way to handle a franchise goaltender with a Stanley Cup on his resume.
Bylsma believes he made the right move Saturday, because the Penguins came back and won. Most observers likely would agree, but how can anybody say Fleury wouldn't have won the game?
Fleury was sitting at his locker after the morning skate Wednesday, already knowing Brent Johnson would be making his eighth start of the season -- a start that would turn disastrous in the third period of a 7-4 loss to the Boston Bruins.
Fleury has endured his share of trials during his six-year career. He labels his rocky start this season altogether different.
"I would say it's the toughest time I've had, for sure," he said.
Fleury's numbers are astonishing. His goals-against average (3.54) ranks 37th in a 30-team league. His save percentage (.853) ranks 40th. His record is 1-6. Johnson, in sharp contrast, went into last night's game ranked fourth in goals-against average and save percentage and was 6-1-1.
Thankfully, Fleury has retained his sense of humor. I asked why he continued to wear his mask on the bench after he was pulled in Phoenix.
Did he think he was going back in?
"Not really, I just didn't have my (baseball) hat close by, so I kept my helmet on," he said. "And I didn't want anybody to read my lips."
Read my lips: Fleury is at his best when his team is playing structured defensive hockey, and over the past year, the Penguins too often have not.
That looked like a structure-less team last night, all right, as players freelanced their way to squandering a 4-2 lead after two periods. They went for the blowout instead of taking pains to secure the victory.
Bylsma's dilemma is a doozy. It's hard to blame him for going with Johnson, but he surely could have handled the Fleury situation better. And at some point, Fleury figures to need a stretch of games to find his rhythm.
Bylsma insists that will happen. The time is ripe, given that Johnson has surrendered 11 goals in his past two starts.
I asked defenseman Brooks Orpik the other day if he liked the prospect of giving Fleury a run of games, an idea team captain Sidney Crosby seemed to endorse earlier this week.
"Well, I'm sure everybody has their own opinion in here, and it doesn't really matter, 'cause there's one guy who's going to decide whether or not (Fleury) is playing," Orpik said. "I don't know if there's a right or wrong answer, to be honest. Maybe you throw him in there and he gets his confidence back by playing that much. The flipside of it: What if you put him put back in there and he continues to struggle and we miss the playoffs by two points• Then you kind of sit here and kick yourself and say, 'Maybe we should have let him work through it in practice earlier on.' "
Bruins goaltender Tim Thomas can relate to Fleury. He was the reigning Vezina Trophy winner last season but got hurt and lost his job. Thomas knows that confidence is a fragile thing and that working on one's game in practice can be a hard way to restore it.
"Sometimes you need to work on technique, and if you do that, you're going to have practices where you're getting scored on a lot," Thomas said. "Sometimes you need to say 'Screw it, I'm going to do everything I can to stop (the puck).' There are different answers for different people."
There is only one adequate answer to the Penguins' goaltending dilemma: Get Fleury right or go home early again next spring.