One of the unfortunate byproducts of the Penguins newfound hoard of young talent has been the debate among fans of which players are most vital to the team and which ones should be moved if they can't all stay due to the salary cap. Welcome to the new NHL. While ideally this topic would not have sprung up so quickly I won't deny my part in the conversation. I will also not deny my outrage at how many people think goalie Marc-Andre Fleury is the most expendable of the Pens' young studs. Nevermind that goalie is the most important position in the sport, Fleury had a breakout season at the tender age of 22 and at times carried the team to victory almost singlehandedly.
In just his second full season in the NHL Fleury became only the second goalie in Penguins history to win 40 games in a season and backstopped the Pens to their first playoff appearance since 2000. He set personal bests in all statistical categories and did it all playing behind a suspect Penguins defensive unit. When I traveled to Dallas to watch the Penguins take on the Stars I walked away very disappointed in the Pens defensive play. I said right then that if the Penguins were going to make the playoffs it would be thanks to MAF. Well Fleury got the Pens to the postseason and was arguably their best player in the disappointing series loss to Ottawa. Yet this is the guy many Penguins fans see as expendable, despite excelling at one of the toughest positions in all of sport at such a rapid pace.
Most knowledgeable hockey people will tell you that it takes goalies longer to develop than skaters. Some of the NHL's best netminders have been traded multiple times by GMs that lacked the patience to let them come into their own at the NHL level. Current franchise goalies Roberto Luongo and Jean-Sebastien Giguere are both now with their third teams in their relatively short careers. Fans and media members are still in disbelief that Mike Keenan traded Luongo away in a move that likely played a large role in his dismissal from the Panthers. Let's compare the numbers for each of these goalies in their first three seasons:
The first thing that jumped out to me when comparing these numbers was how long it took Giguere to even secure a regular gig in the NHL. He really didn't have any success until landing in Anaheim. It wasn't like there were a lot of top-tier goalies ahead of him on the depth chart during his time in Hartford and Calgary either. Luongo put up good numbers in his third (second full) season, but only managed 16 wins. That was mostly due to the team playing in front of him, but I still would have expected at least 20 wins from a goalie of his ability. And then there is MAF... his goals against and save percentage are almost identical to Giguere's while appearing in far more games. On the surface Luongo's numbers look better... until you look at the win column. Fleury is the only one of the three to even reach the 20 win mark, let alone 40. Granted Luongo and Giguere did not have the luxury of playing behind the likes of Crosby, Staal, and Malkin, but they also broke into the NHL (slightly) later in their careers and never faced the kind of pressure in their first three years that Fleury was under this past season. They never had to feel the heat of a playoff push or challenging for a division title in their early years.
Marc-Andre Fluery may never quite get to the level that Roberto Luongo is at, but he has proven to be an outstanding goalie at a young age and has all the potential and ability to be a top 5 goalie in the NHL for the next ten years if not longer. He has also shown the knack to make the big save at the key point in the game, something that is vital to winning games and playoff success. MAF's present is in Pittsburgh and I am confident that his future is as well. I would love to see him sign a long-term deal this season and remain a Penguin for the long haul. Sid is great, Malkin is a star, and Staal is tremendous, but MAF is the key to the Cup for the Penguins.