Growing up in net
Fleury paid price on the way to realizing his potential
Posted: Monday February 12, 2007 3:56PM; Updated: Monday February 12, 2007 3:56PM
After briefly losing his starting status, Fleury has blossomed into the dependable goalie the Penguins envisioned.
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images
The adage is that every team needs dependable goaltending to win. The Penguins knew that when they drafted Marc-Andre Fleury first overall in 2003. The problem was that they needed goaltending immediately and the 18-year old Fleury wasn't ready to handle the responsibility at the NHL level. The urge to get Fleury in goal against the backdrop of business realities -- contract status and bonus clauses -- further muddied any clear-cut development track for the young prodigy.
Then there was the matter of winning. Or should I say the lack thereof. Trying to learn what it takes, both physically and mentally, to play the bulk of the games in the NHL as a number one netminder is a difficult process. Hoping to have it all come together in an environment of uncertainty marked by mounting losses is nearly impossible. Doubt creeps in, raising questions as to promise seen and potential possibly going unrealized.
Well, in a season in which the Penguins have taken the league by storm, Fleury, just 22 years old now, is silencing any doubters one shooter at a time.
Fleury is melding his physical gifts with the mental focus required to play consistently at the top level. I saw him play as an 18-year old and I thought at the time that he had the quickest legs I'd ever seen. His lightning-quick reactions on pad saves while in his butterfly position were eye-catching. Yet, for all the acrobatics and scintillating saves, he had a tendency to over-commit, give up juicy rebounds and lose positioning for second shot situations.
And there was the losing. For Fleury, it was play great and still lose; play average and lose lopsidedly. That took its toll mentally, and even during the lockout season when Fleury played exclusively in the AHL -- no more shuttling up and down from the big club to junior or the minors -- stability didn't translate to out-and-out domination. His numbers were fine, but the season ended with him struggling in the AHL playoffs and eventually losing his starter status.
Last season was more upheaval with the Penguins making an early season coaching change and Fleury battling bouts of inconsistency. Once the team brought him up from the AHL, where he dominated the early going, he had more good nights than bad and was in goal for 13 of the team's meager 22 wins. The signs were there that Fleury was developing his skills at the NHL level. He was maturing physically, more willing to trust his technique and let the game come to him.
This season began with Fleury playing brilliantly right out of training camp -- just as he had last season in the AHL. The difference being that he'd replicated his success at the highest level. Now, surrounded by a cast of world-class youngsters led by Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal, the precocious Pens were a fun story for October, but the unspoken perception was that Fleury and his mates were too young to keep it up over the course of a long season.
Well, don't look now, but the Penguins are the hottest team in the NHL over the past three weeks -- going 11-0-2 and catapulting past Eastern Conference adversaries all the way to the fourth spot. Much of the focus is on Crosby and company, but Crosby himself points to the play of Fleury as the main reason for the team's success saying, "he has been unbelievable for us."
And that may be the most accurate gauge of Fleury's ascent, because players know. They sense a goaltender's dependability and Fleury has given his team a chance to compete since the season started. Now, the confidence flows both ways, and the losing of last season has turned to winning.
In talking to Fleury earlier this season, he spoke of working out and getting stronger to prepare for the season. He told me that the biggest element for him to work on was his patience. He was referring to positioning for puck-stopping and not the development process that got him to this point -- one ironically marred by impatience. Yet, even though the path Fleury endured was hardly ideal for a young goaltender, he is emerging as a top netminder, just as the Penguins had envisioned.
Winning, of course, is the ultimate payoff.