At the start of May, the Pittsburgh Penguins were in a first-round dogfight with the New York Islanders. Now, at the end of the month, the Penguins are four wins away from playing for the Stanley Cup.
The reason they are in this position is due to their decision to bench franchise goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury in favor of veteran Tomas Vokoun.
Fleury had a great regular season for the Penguins, compiling a 2.39 goals-against average and .916 save percentage. He started the playoffs hot by blanking the Islanders in Game 1.
Then the wheels came off. Fleury allowed 11 goals over the next three games. More alarming than this stat, however, was his demeanor in net. Fleury was allowing goals from behind the net and was constantly fighting the puck.
Things looked bad in Pittsburgh.
Insert a wily veteran of 14 years.
Vokoun came in for the Penguins in Game 5 and settled the team down. He guided them through the stormy waters, past the Islanders and into a second-round matchup against the Ottawa Senators.
Vokoun was dominant in the Ottawa series, leading the Penguins to a 4-1 series victory. By this point, however, Pandora's box had been opened. Was this Vokoun's team now? Was there a place for Fleury in Pittsburgh anymore?
It's no secret that Fleury has struggled in the playoffs in recent memory. That is why Penguins general manager Ray Shero signed Vokoun this offseason. Vokoun has become somewhat of a journeyman in the past few years, but he seems to have found a niche in Pittsburgh.
Vokoun only played in 20 games this year, making 17 starts. He did, however, go 13-4 with a 2.45 GAA.
If you look at these stats, the move to insert Vokoun into the lineup against the Islanders makes sense. If you look at the politics and business behind the move, it quickly becomes a gray area.
Fleury has been the guy in Pittsburgh since he was the first overall pick in the 2003 NHL draft. He has had his ups and downs during his eight years in Pittsburgh, but he did bring the Penguins a Stanley Cup. His recent struggles have put a sour taste in the mouth of the Penguins faithful, though.
Now, this begs the question: What's next for Fleury and the Penguins?
Vokoun is four wins away from taking the Penguins to the Stanley Cup Final as Fleury watches from the bench.
"I'm trying not to think about it," Fleury told the Boston Herald when asked about his situation. Fleury also said he will continue to keep quiet regarding this situation so he doesn't cause a distraction for his team.
Vokoun thinks he still has something to prove. "I always feel like it's a tryout, and once you stumble, you never know what's going to happen," Vokoun told NHL.com.
Looking forward, the Penguins will have a tough decision to make. According to CapGeek, Fleury will have a $5 million cap hit next year. Shero will have to manage his money carefully as he looks to re-sign key players such as Pascal Dupuis, Matt Cooke, Craig Adams, Tyler Kennedy and Jarome Iginla.
The Penguins could look for a trade to add youth to their front line or could buy out Fleury's contract to save cap space.
ESPN's Craig Custance (subscription required) says the Penguins should be wary of breaking up their young nucleus, though:
It works on a spreadsheet, but it's the kind of move that could upset the balance of a very tight-knit group. Fleury is part of the Penguins' talented core and has grown up with guys like Sidney Crosby, Malkin and Kris Letang. He's their Grant Fuhr.
Another interesting piece to this puzzle is the Penguins' recent signing of former Quinnipiac goaltender Eric Hartzell. Hartzell had an amazing season for Quinnipiac, going 30-7-5 with a 1.57 GAA.
He saw his season end at Consol Energy Center, as his team fell to Yale in the NCAA Championship game. Hartzell may not be NHL-ready at the moment, but he is young and has a lot of potential.
The Penguins could move Fleury this offseason to free up cap space and bring up Hartzell. Even though he might be a little raw, he would have a year to learn behind Vokoun.
Whatever the Penguins decide, fans should be able to get behind Shero. After all, he hasn't made many mistakes in his years at the helm.
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