Wondering about Marc-Andre Fleury's future in Pittsburgh has become something of a summer ritual for fans of the Penguins.
Since winning the Stanley Cup in 2009, Fleury has received a tremendous amount of flack for his postseason play—whether the hate is deserved or not is another story for another time—and each offseason seems to apply even more pressure to the following campaign for the goalie.
Fleury seemed to be getting the better of his playoff demons last season, downing the Columbus Blue Jackets (and then-reigning Vezina trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky) in the first round before taking on the New York Rangers in the second. Back-to-back shutouts in Games 2 and 3 against the Blueshirts appeared to signal the turning of a corner for Fleury.
Following those two victories, the Penguins would lose four of their next five, and Fleury's save percentage reached brutal lows.
|Fleury's Save Percentage By Game (Eastern Semifinal)|
|Game||Save Percentage||Outcome||Series Score|
|One||.889||3-2 NYR win||1-0 NYR|
|Two||1.000||3-0 PIT win||1-1 tied|
|Three||1.000||2-0 PIT win||2-1 PIT|
|Four||.867||4-2 PIT win||3-1 PIT|
|Five||.882||5-1 NYR win||3-2 PIT|
|Six||.897||3-1 NYR win||3-3 tied|
|Seven||.900||2-1 NYR win||Rangers Win Series|
Granted, Pittsburgh didn't lose the series because of a Fleury breakdown, but the save percentages weren't good enough to help the Penguins advance either. Some wondered whether or not the second-round loss would finally cause (now) ex-general manager Ray Shero to pull the plug on Fleury.
Shero didn't get the chance to do that though, as team ownership decided to shake up the front office in response to the tough loss to the Rangers. One of the first things Jim Rutherford did when he took over for Shero was state that Fleury's job was safe.
During an interview with 93.7 The Fan (transcribed by NHL.com), Rutherford said this about the crenelated netminder:
The one thing I'll say about Fleury is this past season was the best season, the most consistent season he's had over several seasons, probably over three or four seasons. Other than a couple of goals in the Columbus series, I thought his playoff series performance was fine, his regular season was fine and from an ability point of view he's a very, very good goalie.
Going back a couple years, I think the mental part of the game was difficult for him, and certainly it seems that whatever he did in last offseason has strengthened his position, and I see him as a guy that'll build off of last season and be as good or better next year.
Who knows what Shero would have done with the goalie, but Rutherford clearly has no intention of changing his rotation in net. That doesn't mean that the 2014-15 campaign is going to be a fun round of Hungry Hungry Hippos for Fleury though.
He might have Rutherford's confidence this offseason, but what happens if Fleury starts letting in two goals per 10 shots in the playoffs again this year?
It's an interesting scenario because the goalie's seven-year, $35 million contract expires at the end of the season. Whether or not the GM is looking for a new goalie or not, he'll have the chance to pursue one in the summer of 2015, which makes this a make-or-break year for Fleury—especially if he wants to continue his career with the team that selected him first overall in 2003.
It's not quite Stanley Cup or bust in Steel City, but it's close.
If the Penguins go into the playoffs as a 100-plus point team again and still bows out because of low numbers from Fleury, Rutherford will have to strongly consider pulling the plug and moving on.
As per CapGeek.com, there are only a handful of goalies who could backstop a championship team potentially hitting the market in 2015. There was a ton of help available this summer, but Rutherford opted not to chase down a goalie like Ryan Miller—and let's be honest, he didn't have the money to do so either.
Ben Bishop is the best potential free agent, but it's tough to imagine Steve Yzerman and the Tampa Bay Lightning letting him go. That leaves Antti Niemi and Craig Anderson as the other two big names available. Given Niemi's history in San Jose and Anderson's struggles with the Ottawa Senators, neither are really an upgrade over Fleury.
The trade market is always a possibility, while a younger but unproven free agent like Michal Neuvirth could also be an interesting target.
There are a handful of possible options, but none of them will be worth considering if Fleury can put the pieces together and take another run at the Stanley Cup. He's never been asked to steal games in Pittsburgh, but he can't be the reason the Penguins lose either.
That's been Fleury's ask throughout the duration of his 600-plus game career (including playoffs). There's an added degree of personal urgency now that his contract is expiring, and if the goalie wants to continue to lace up his skates for the Penguins, he'll need to provide his usual level of play during the regular season before winning some tough contests in the postseason.
It might not be fair, but that's what Fleury finally needs to prove he can do in 2014-15—win close games and close out a series.