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Pressure Is on Fleury After Penguins Add Michalek, Martin

Jul 1, 2010 – 9:55 PM
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Adam Gretz

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The one player in Pittsburgh that should -- emphasis on should -- benefit the most from Ray Shero's free-agent signing spree on Thursday (Zbynek Michalek and Paul Martin) is goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. After all, a great defense is a goaltender's best friend. It's also going to turn up the heat on the Penguins' starting netminder.

Coming off what was, statistically, his worst regular-season performance in four years, the 25-year-old Fleury had a disastrous playoff run that ended when he was pulled early in the second period of Pittsburgh's lackluster 5-2 loss in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. It wasn't all his doing, of course, as the Penguins defense was porous for much of the second half of the season, and the entire postseason. But the roller coaster-like inconsistency from Fleury (brilliance one night, followed by disappointment the next), as well as his tendency to allow at least one bad angle goal per game certainly didn't help.

Fleury is a polarizing figure in the Pittsburgh sports landscape. Depending on whom you speak to, he's either a legitimate, unquestioned No. 1 franchise goaltender, or an overpaid, overrated disappointment that has been the product of the all-star talent that's surrounded him over the past four years. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle.

Working in his favor is the fact that he does own a Stanley Cup ring, which he earned by making a sprawling, last-second save on Detroit's Nicklas Lidstrom, securing a 2-1 win in Game 7 of the 2009 Stanley Cup Final. He was also one of Pittsburgh's most valuable players the year before, stopping over 93 percent of the shots he faced during a run to the Final.

The problem, however, is that there's still plenty of debate as to just how good he really is, and whether or not he's taken "the next step" to becoming one of the league's best goalies. Coming off a Stanley Cup-winning season, it should have been expected that he would continue to progress as a player. But he didn't. He regressed. And at times, badly.

There's plenty of focus on the amount of money the Penguins have invested in their top three centers (Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal) and now their defense. But they also have a sizable portion of their cap space tied up in Fleury. At $5 million per season he carries the 11th biggest cap hit among NHL goaltenders, and is coming off a season where his save percentage was bad enough for 31st in the league (for his six-year career, he's finished in the top 10 in save percentage one time).

A weakened defense certainly played a role in his performance as he was often left out to dry. But for the amount of money the Penguins are paying him you should still expect better, and during his press conference on Thursday, Shero pointed out that Fleury must improve his performance.

"Marc-Andre Fleury and Brent Johnson, and in Marc's case, are going to have to do a better job than last year," said Shero. "That is going to be his goal. I know he is focused on that. If he comes back and plays to his capabilities we are going to be in really great shape."

With the additions of Michalek and Martin, combined with the return of Brooks Orpik, Kris Letang and Alex Goligoski, the defense will no longer be an excuse, as it is now one of the Penguins' strengths.

Investing heavily in defense has become all the rage in the NHL these days. The Detroit Red Wings have been doing it for years (with great success), and last year's final four teams (Montreal, Philadelphia, Chicago, and San Jose) all had over $18.5 million committed just to defensemen (which, oddly enough, is exactly what the Penguins have invested in their defense as of Thursday evening).

The catch, however, is that most of those teams spent significantly less on their starting goalie. The Flyers, Red Wings and Canadiens spent next to nothing -- allowing for improvements elsewhere on the team -- while the Sharks have followed suit for this season after letting Evgeni Nabokov leave via free agency, replacing him with what will likely be a rotation of Thomas Greiss and Antero Niittymaki.

Bottom line: with his experience (he's young in terms of his age, but in terms of playing time he's a seasoned veteran), this defense and that cap hit, Fleury must take that major step toward being a more consistent goalie this season.
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