Pens' Fleury's goal: More wins
Marc-Andre Fleury considered the question carefully: How badly does he burn to be one of the great goaltenders of all-time?
"Like, I don't get up in the morning and say, 'I want to be a great goalie,' you know?" Fleury said. "I just get up and want to go play and win. If I can do that all year, every year, I think that's going to make me a good goalie.
"I have to look at the small future before I think too far."
The "small future," if it's kind to the Penguins, will see Fleury play a whole bunch of games again this season. His backup is 27-year-old Dany Sabourin, who has appeared in only 14 NHL games.
Fleury set a Penguins record by appearing in 67 games in 2006-07, and it proved to be a watershed season -- even if some of his statistics ranked near the bottom of the league. He finished 27th in the NHL in goals-against average (2.83) and 24th in save percentage (.906), but he also finished tied for third in wins (40). The only two goalies with more were Vancouver's Roberto Luongo and New Jersey's Martin Brodeur, the top two vote-getters for the Vezina Trophy.
See the complete 2007 Penguins preview section
Penguins general manager Ray Shero isn't against Fleury playing 65-plus games again. Shero's not hung up on the stats, either. He's more interested in victories. He cites former Boston Bruins great Gerry Cheevers as a goalie who didn't necessarily have gaudy stats but found ways to win.
Cheevers, a Hall of Famer, won two Stanley Cups.
"He was a money goaltender," Shero said. "When it came time to win, he made the save. (Fleury) showed the ability to do that last year."
It helped that Fleury finally had a full-time goalie coach (Gilles Meloche) and that the Penguins were more dedicated to team defense under coach Michel Therrien.
Two years ago, Fleury had a penchant for allowing fluky late-game goals. Last year, he became a closer.
"The guys improved and made my job so much easier," Fleury said. "It seemed like we could win every game."
Fleury is one of only four Penguins players (Ryan Malone, Rob Scuderi, Brooks Orpik) who played on the team in 2003-04. It seems as if he's been around forever, but he remains the NHL's youngest goaltender. He turns 23 on Nov. 28.
|The NHL's five youngest starting goaltenders:|
|1. Marc-Andre Fleury||Penguins||22||11/28/84|
|2. Cam Ward||Carolina||23||2/29/84|
|3. Kari Lehtonen||Atlanta||23||11/16/83|
|4. Ray Emery||Ottawa||25||9/28/82|
|5. Peter Budaj||Colorado||25||9/18/82|
The biggest change in Fleury's game last season was improved positioning. You knew he was playing well when he wasn't making spectacular saves. If he's properly positioned, the puck tends to him squarely in the logo. His rebound-control improved, too, but he still needs work on his puck-handling.
"I think he'll have a better season," Therrien said. "Because I think we'll play more of a mature team game. There were times last year where we were overexcited and out of position."
Underneath Fleury's familiar smile beats the heart of an intense competitor.
"If you practice against him, you realize pretty quick how competitive he is," forward Sidney Crosby said. "I love shooting on him in practice. It makes me better."
Therrien tested Fleury last season, ripping him publicly after a string of subpar performances in February. The coach called Fleury's performance "unacceptable" and gave more playing time to backup Jocelyn Thibault.
"People made a big deal because I snapped his finger once," Therrien said. "I love the kid. He's a kid who competes. You do things because you want players to react and perform."
Fleury responded by improving his play down the stretch. He wasn't terrific in a first-round playoff series against Ottawa, but he wasn't bad, either. He stole Game 2 with 34 saves, including a point-blank stop of Mike Fisher in the waning seconds.
The series helped the younger Penguins grow up in a hurry.
"I thought it was awesome, the experience," Fleury said. "It wasn't great that we lost, but the experience we all got in such an intense atmosphere, I want to do it every year, for sure."
He'll likely get that chance in the very small future.
Based on a Hockey News survey of NHL general managers and pro scouts, Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury still isn't among the league's top 10, but he's close. Here are the top 15 from the survey:
1. Roberto Luongo - Vancouver
2. Martin Brodeur - New Jersey
3. Miikka Kiprusoff - Calgary
4. Ryan Miller - Buffalo
5. Marty Turco - Dallas
6. Dominik Hasek - Detroit
7. J.S. Giguere - Anaheim
8. Rick DiPietro - N.Y. Islanders
9. Henrik Lundqvist - N.Y. Rangers
10. Niklas Backstrom - Minnesota
11. Marc-Andre Fleury - Penguins
12. Tomas Vokoun - Florida
13. Cam Ward - Carolina
14. Kari Lehtonen - Atlanta
15. Martin Biron - Philadelphia