The writing was on the boards for Marc-Andre Fleury.
He rode the pine late in the 2016 season because of concussion-like symptoms. He lost his starting gig to Matt Murray as the 21 year-old carried the Pittsburgh Penguins to a Stanley Cup title. Murray was the starter heading into 2017 before an injury pushed Fleury back to his throne. Despite that, the Penguins signed Murray to a three-year extension last October.
While Fleury still viewed himself as a starting NHL goaltender, Pittsburgh’s actions showed he was due an impending outbound ticket from the Steel City.
Now with a cap crunch possibly looming, the Penguins are three wins away from returning to the Stanley Cup Final thanks to Flower Power.
In an ironic role reversal from last year, Fleury took the reins for the 2017 playoffs after Murray sustained a lower-body injury before Game 1 in the first round. “The Flower” hasn’t looked back since. He’s won nine of 14 games while eliminating division rivals Columbus and Washington.
Facing an average of 34 shots per game, he stands tall with a save percentage of 93.1 percent. Murray healed from his injury last series, but watched as Fleury shut out the Capitals in a decisive Game 7. Fleury continues to start in the series against Ottawa, currently knotted at one game apiece.
Fleury has come full circle in his return to the postseason spotlight. He became the Penguins’ all-time winningest goalie by his ninth season and currently has 375 victories. He backstopped Pittsburgh’s first Stanley Cup win in 17 seasons back in 2009.
Prior to his injury last season, he was on pace for a career year in goals allowed and save percentage. However, the concussion-like symptoms stunted his momentum and allowed Murray to vault over him on the depth chart.
Fleury, nonetheless, took this season in stride. There were never any rumblings about his contempt for not gaining more minutes. Even with doubts about his future with Pittsburgh rising each month, he said all the right words about the organization. The coaching staff and media praised how he handled the situation. Now, he could earn a fourth Stanley cup berth.
While Penguins fans enjoy the Flower Power now, his long-term status with the team is in question. The Murray extension plays a pivotal role in it as well. Fleury has two years left on his contract with an average annual value at $5.75 million. Murray’s new contract kicks in next season at $3.25 million. That’s $9 million towards two netminders.
This situation isn’t common around the league. Only six other teams in the NHL have $9 million or more in cap space reserved for goalies. The Rangers and Penguins are the only ones on the list that do not have a restricted free agent counting towards the cap. Amongst those teams are Carolina and Dallas, but they have crowded nets after acquiring Scott Darling and Ben Bishop. This means Pittsburgh may seek to drop a goalie to ease their cap.
Is Fleury’s recent play enough to keep him close to the Three Rivers? It’s unclear at this moment.
The Penguins must protect him in the upcoming expansion draft due to his no-movement clause. However, Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford said back in November that Murray’s deal is a bridge contract. He will likely command a higher contract at the end of it, and his age is much more favorable than Fleury.
While it may mean parting ways with the franchise’s best goalie in history, capitalizing on his recent value may make more sense.
What’s next for Fleury?
There are options for Fleury if he becomes available for a trade. Carolina and Dallas showed that teams today are looking for solid performers in net. Winnipeg, Vancouver and Buffalo could be in the market for a goalie. Las Vegas also needs one, but Pittsburgh would have to either protect Fleury and expose Murray, or negotiate with the Golden Knights to keep his rights.
Even while he returns to the starting gig and excels in the playoffs, Marc-Andre Fleury’s future with the Penguins is up in the air. He’s come a long way from this time one year ago. Enjoy the ride for now.
Feature image by Geoff Burke, USA Today Sports
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