One shot, one save. One practice, one game. One at a time, time after time. This is not just sports pyschobabble. This is how Marc-Andre Fleury must build toward the playoffs, puck by puck, day by day, before he can even begin to rebuild his reputation and save his job as the goaltender of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Fleury has been reminded constantly about his playoff failures in training camp when all he wants to do is move past them. Since winning the Stanley Cup in 2009, he has posted a save percentage below .900 in four straight postseasons. He has been yanked. He has been benched. He hasn’t been the Penguins’ only problem – injuries, loose defense and even impotent offense, incredibly, have been big issues, too – but on a team with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and company, he is the burning question.
But Fleury cannot answer now. He cannot satisfy anyone in October or November, December or January, February or March. His regular seasons have been fine – 37 wins in 2009-10, 36 wins in 2010-11, 42 wins in 2011-12, 23 wins in a 48-game schedule last season, with save percentages north of .900. If he plays well over the next six months, people will just say he’s on a great team and wait for the playoffs to judge him then. If he struggles, people will panic.
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And so Fleury cannot hit fast-forward in his mind. One shot, one save. One practice, one game. One at a time, time after time.
“Try to bring it in slowly and feel more comfortable,” Fleury said. “Just go one game at a time, try to win it and go to the next game. April comes, and we should be good.”
He should be good. He really should. After a wild first-round loss to the Philadelphia Flyers in 2012, Penguins GM Ray Shero brought in veteran backup Tomas Vokoun in case Fleury faltered again. Sure enough, Fleury faltered again in a wild first-round series against the New York Islanders in 2013, and Vokoun replaced him. Yet Shero not only stuck with Fleury, he defended him passionately.
Shero is a creative, decisive GM. Bam, he traded Jordan Staal, didn’t he? Why would he declare Fleury wasn’t going anywhere?
Start with Fleury’s contract, of course. He is signed for two more seasons with a $5 million cap hit, with protection from waivers and a limited no-trade clause, according to capgeek.com. He would be difficult, if not impossible, to move, and a significant upgrade would be difficult to acquire and might cost too much in assets and cap space.
Maybe Shero is stuck with Fleury as much as he’s sticking with him. He has to do his best to make it work, and this is the best way to do so. Shero told the media Fleury needed focus and confidence. No point in chipping away at either. Every reason to prop up both.
But it’s more than that. The Penguins have helped players like Matt Cooke and Paul Martin figure things out. Corey Crawford just bounced back from a poor performance in a first-round playoff loss, playing well and winning a Cup after the Chicago Blackhawks believed in him. Fleury is capable of doing the same, and if he does it, that’s best for everyone.
The Penguins seem to genuinely love Fleury as a person – he’s a great guy, with class and a quick smile – and they believe his struggles have been mental, not physical. They are not alone. Others around the league look at Fleury and see a former first overall draft pick who is still only 28 years old, who used to flash his quick legs and come out to challenge and play with reckless abandon, but whose talent doesn’t show when he’s distracted and tentative.
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Fleury accepted the Penguins’ request to see a sports psychologist over the summer, after declining the previous two years. He doesn’t want to talk about it, which is understandable, but there should be no stigma, especially in his situation. Not only does he play goal – a lonely, exposed position – he plays it for Pittsburgh, a stacked team with the highest expectations. Hard to be the hero, easy to be the goat. With all that talent in him and around him, he has a lot to gain, but a lot to lose, too.
He also has a new goalie coach, Mike Bales, who is changing some little, technical things – post play, positional play in different situations, top-secret stuff. His old goalie coach, Gilles Meloche, is now a special assignment scout.
“Obviously Marc’s a very athletic guy,” Bales said. “I don’t think there are a lot of guys who are as athletic as he is. There are just a few minor adjustments that I feel he can make that can really benefit his game.”
“Seeing how it feels,” Fleury said. “If I like it, I’ll keep doing it. And if not, then I’ll do what I used to do.”
This is going to be a process, and it is complicated by the fact Vokoun is out indefinitely to recover from a blood clot in his pelvis. Fleury might have to play a lot without a safety net, and he might have to think about things before they come naturally when he already was thinking too much. He has had an OK camp, at best. Ask Bales how he will know Fleury is confident, ask him how he will tell when Fleury is on top of his game, and he declines to answer. It’s too early.
“We’re going to make a few adjustments, and I want to see where he’s at with that,” Bales said. “He’s obviously open to making a few changes, and like I said before, it’s nothing major, just some little tweaks here and there. I don’t think it’s fair to comment on exactly what his game should look like until we get it there.”
If only people knew how badly Fleury wants to get back to where he was, so he can stay where he is.
“I think it’s tough to describe,” Fleury said. “I think you have to live it, be in it, to know really what it’s like. It’s tough. It’s tough when it doesn’t go the way you want, you’re not helping the way you want to. It’s tough. I love it here. I want to win here again. I’ll just keep working towards it to make it happen.”
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