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As the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrated their Stanley Cup victory on the ice in San Jose, there was one player who couldn’t help but feel the victory was bittersweet.
Marc-Andre Fleury had tasted it before, in 2009, when he started 24 games in their Stanley Cup campaign. He wasn’t great, but he was good enough. Then came a few disastrous postseasons – that series against the Flyers in 2012 remains abhorrent – followed by some of his best work as a regular-season goaltender, especially when the Penguins were playing through all manner of catastrophic injury.
“Last time I played all the games and was more involved,” he said on Sunday. “I don't know. I'm still part of the team. I was still cheering them on. They're all my buddies. We went through some tough times, some good times. I'm really proud of how it all turned out.”
No one knows how it’ll turn out for Fleury, 31, this offseason. Matt Murray, 22, has arrived ahead of schedule as the next franchise goalie, now sporting a Stanley Cup ring he earned. Fleury is signed through 2019 at a $5.75 million cap hit and has a no-move clause (so he can’t be waived or demoted) and a limited no-trade clause.
An expansion draft is coming next summer. It could preclude the Penguins from keeping two goalies. Fleury's stock is up, despite the concussion that ruined his postseason. Sell high. He is coming off the best season of his career and has three years left on his deal at a manageable annual cap hit of $5.75 million. All of that is attractive to potential buyers. By dealing Fleury, the Penguins would carve out some truly meaningful cap space.
True, the Penguins are in a pretty good place salary-wise, as Fleury is due to make about $5.75 million and Murray is due to make about $950,000. If you combine those salaries, it adds up to about $6.7 million — still less than the salary of any of the top four goaltenders. Financially, it could work, but it still doesn’t make sense. The backup goaltender would be fifth-highest paid on the team and would be among the top 14 goaltenders in the league.
Penguins GM Jim Rutherford would like him to stay, but admits that it’s not a perfect world.
“If it was in a perfect world and (coach Mike Sullivan) and I were making a decision right now, we'd like to start the season with Fleury and Murray,” Rutherford said, via the Trib.
“We have two very good starting goalies now, one starting out his career and one that's had a great career and has many, many more years left in him,” Rutherford said. “It's a great situation that we have good goalies, but it could be a tough situation going forward. I don't want to get too far ahead of myself. Let's see what the expansion guidelines are. Let's see how Marc is feeling about this. Then I can start to figure out how we're going to go forward.”
In other words: He doesn’t know where Fleury’s head is at, and he doesn’t know what options are at his disposal if in fact it’s time to move him.
Here’s where I am on Fleury for next season:
You keep him for 2016-17. If you can.
I know. Salary cap Armageddon. Expansion draft drama. Dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria.
Let’s start with the money. Zeise makes a good point: $6.7 million is the going rate for Stanley Cup-caliber goaltending. It’s around what the Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings spend on theirs.
The Penguins are blessed with next year’s payroll yet they’re still up against or over the cap. Nick Bonino is making $1.9 million before going UFA. Bryan Rust, Connor Sheary, Derrick Pouliot, Brian Dumoulin and Murray are still on rookie deals, with Daniel Sprong likely getting the call up too and he makes less than $1 million at the NHL level.
So trading Fleury and his $5.75 million hit makes sense to get breathing space under the cap and potentially add something to that blue line. That said, the real necessity to clear the space isn’t there until 2017, when some of those rookie deals are up.
So here’s the case for keeping Fleury:
1. The Penguins are a better team with Fleury and Murray as their battery than Murray and Zatkoff or Murray and [Insert Veteran Here], because there’s really only one veteran worth a damn on the UFA market (James Reimer) and other than that [Insert Veteran Here] is going to be a downgrade. There’s a reason Cam Ward just earned a two-year extension with the Hurricanes. OK, that and the Conn Smythe he’s still living off of. (Fair warning, Matt Murray.)
2. Going goalie tandem with Murray and Fleury for a year isn’t the worst idea. Murray’s the franchise goalie, and Fleury’s been aware of this for a few years. But he’s just 22. Splitting starts between the two isn’t ideal for them, but it might be ideal for the Penguins: Two good goalies pushing each other, and keeping a 22-year-old honest after an incredible debut run.
3. He’s Marc-Andre Fleury. It’s amazing how quickly people turn this game into a cold hard business when cold hard business must be done. Ask anyone in that room what Fleury means to the team. Hell, ask Murray. This isn’t as easy as taking our a calculator, calling Dallas and clearing out a locker.
Now, the case for keeping Fleury is based entirely on this being a one-year stay of execution. In Rutherford’s discussions with him, it has to be clear that Fleury will waive his no-move clause for the expansion draft next season. He has to be off the roster or have waived his NMC by the time the expansion draft arrives. No exceptions. If he's not down with that, then he has to be moved now.
(The idea, by the way, that Fleury wouldn't want to be a 1-A in Pittsburgh next year is unfounded. Sure, every starter wants to be a starter. But every player wants to win another Cup. And Pittsburgh is likely his best chance at that next season.)
Admittedly, part of this optimism – hell, Pollyanna-ism – is that I like Fleury, respect how he’s worked back from his postseason nadirs and generally loathe the fact that he lost his gig due to an injury beyond his control.
And yes, I’m fully aware that there are a few golden opportunities to trade him now, given the goalie needs for Calgary and Dallas – although one wonders which of those teams might end up on Fleury’s no-trade list.
Look, if Fleury wants to go to Calgary and they ante up with a pick and a solid prospect, it’s going to be very hard to say no. I’m not sure how the answer isn’t anything but “yes,” actually.
But let’s live in Jim Rutherford’s perfect world for a second. Yes, it would be a great situation to have Fleury and Murray in goal next season for Pittsburgh. If the money works. If the conditions are set.
But this is a very imperfect world, alas.
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