Penguins, Marc-Andre Fleury Making the Changes to Succeed
By Rich Miller (@pensbender)
Marc-Andre Fleury has redefined what it means to be a successful goalie in the NHL.
At age 28, he is the holder of every significant record in Penguins history including most wins and shutouts. Over the past four seasons no other goaltender in the league has won more games. His name is on the Stanley Cup.
But thanks to failures in the postseason, no other goalie in the league is more scrutinized. At best, he’s been labeled an average regular season goalie with an above average salary. In ESPN’s yearly ranking of the 25 top goalies around the league, Fleury wasn’t even mentioned.
After Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma endorsed Fleury as his starting goaltender this past offseason, it became clear that this season would inevitably prove to be the most pivotal in his career. With only one year remaining on a contract that pays him $5 million annually and a host of young goaltenders in the system, it seems unlikely the Penguins would bring Fleury back after another disappointing campaign.
The popular opinion has been that nothing Fleury accomplishes this regular season is of relative significance; what really matters is the playoffs. But after allowing only three goals in the first three games played this young season, it would appear that not only is Fleury back, he’s better than ever.
It isn’t so much the results and statistics that are significant, it’s the way Fleury has looked in the process. Mentally, he’s looked composed and confident in his approach, but he has also made some very visible physical changes to his game as well. He’s less active in net while playing noticeably deeper. He’s also squaring himself to the shooter and relying more on his side-to-side athleticism, as opposed to reading and preparing for possible cross-passes. So far, this change has seemed to also help with his rebound control.
Penguins management is doing their part to assist with a Fleury bounce back through some changes of their own.
Renowned as one of the best defensive minds in the game, Jacques Martin was brought in to add new wrinkles to a Bylsma system that has never struggled with scoring goals. So far, the changes have been clearly visible. The Penguins have taken a much more conservative approach, positioning the F3 forward slightly higher in their offensive zone and decreasing the gap between their defenseman and the oppositions rush. They have also at times employed variations of the trap, making it much more difficult to pass through their neutral zone with speed. The additions of defensive minded defensemen Rob Scuderi and Robert Bortuzzo to the lineup hasn’t hurt either.
Another sign of support came when the team did not make a move.
When news broke that Tomas Vokoun would miss 3-6 months after multiple surgeries to correct a blood clot issue, the Penguins didn’t panic. Even after Fleury’s below average preseason they chose to push forward with what they had. Jeff Zatkoff does deserve a chance to prove himself at the NHL level, but more often than not he will spend most nights on the bench. Though Zatkoff is replacing Vokoun, this decision had more to do with Fleury and the workload he is capable of carrying. There are multiple competent veteran free agent goaltenders still available; by not making a move management has sent a clear message that they have faith in their starting goaltender.
It’s difficult to imagine a scenario where anything positive could come from the loss of Tomas Vokoun. A professional in every sense of the word and a respected leader inside the Penguins locker room, simply replacing what Vokoun means to this team off the ice is impossible. However if there is a silver lining, it is that Fleury now has the opportunity in front of him to take on a leadership role.
Dating back to the days of Ty Conklin and Brent Johnson, Fleury has always had a veteran leader behind him the team could fall back on. Now, if the Penguins are going to win they know it will be Fleury who gives them their best chance. The players have responded appropriately to this by playing much more responsible in front him – 55 total blocked shots and only 16 giveaways.
Of course the sample size has been small, but the foundation for these to lasting changes has been set. The fact that these changes have occurred so quickly this season adds to the encouraging direction the team as a whole is going in. Fleury needed to make physical and mental changes, he has. The players needed to play more responsible no mater who the goalie would be this season, they have.
Maybe it’s too early to be excited, but definitely be encouraged – the Penguins and Fleury are moving in the right direction.