Marc-Andre Fleury gets a head start on the NHL season
While much of hockey's summer drama has been focused on the convoluted doings that surround Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo and how unhappy or happy he might be remaining in Vancouver, another rather fascinating netminder tale is soon to unfold in the East.
Like Luongo, Marc-Andre Fleury of the Penguins has struggled at times while playing for a team that many people consider to be one of the NHL's strongest. Fleury has also taken a considerable amount of heat for his club's recent playoff failures and he appeared to have lost his job last season.
But unlike Luongo, Fleury's club showed little interest in trading him despite reported inquiries from a few suitors. The 28-year-old native of Sorel, Quebec, may have been outplayed by Tomas Vokoun last season, but memories of how he once led the Penguins to playoff triumphs, including the 2009 Stanley Cup, linger in Pittsburgh's front office and among the team's fans. They know what he can do when he's at his best, and that he's still in the prime of his athletic career. Vokoun turned 37 this summer.
So Fleury will be back in black and gold this season. And if the scrutiny isn't as immediately intense as it will be on Bobby Lu in Vancouver, you can bet that come springtime all eyes will again be trained on the man his teammates call "Flower." Everyone will be waiting to see if Fleury repeats or avoids his annual and increasingly bizarre playoff disasters, like this tally by the Kyle Okposo of the Islanders in their first round playoff series last May:
Gaffes like that were the lowlights as Fleury surrendered 40 goals in a stretch of 10 playoff games and coach Dan Bylsma turned to Vokoun as his starter for the rest of the postseason.
"The playoffs are the question mark he's had the past four years," Pens GM Ray Shero told Joe Starkey of the Pittsburgh Tribune Review last month. "I think it's probably something on his mind."
So Shero and the Pens are checking Fleury's mind. The club asked him to see a sports psychologist -- and it wasn't a first-time request. This summer, he agreed.
"It's another tool," Fleury told RDS's Antonin Besner earlier this week at an informal workout and promotional event in Brossard, Quebec. "It's something that can help you perform, so why not give it a try? I think it was an opportune time to meet with him.
"I feel good that I've met him," he added, saying he and the psychologist worked on "what to think and how to think. It will be good."
Fleury's playoffs problems have been evident since 2010. In their post-Cup era, the Penguins have won only one playoff round with Fleury in goal and his save percentage during those aborted runs dropped below the .900 mark. In fact, the year the Pens won the Cup, Fleury's save percentage was only .908, not as impressive as in 2008 when he posted a sterling .933 mark but they lost the Cup final in six games to the Red Wings.
Regardless, he will forever be remembered in the 'Burgh for the '09 Cup and his last second stop of Nick Lidstrom's attempt to tie Game 7.
Improvements to his mental game are one thing, but the Penguins didn't stop there. They also hired a new goalie coach, announcing this week that Mike Bales would replace Gilles Meloche, with whom Fleury had worked during his nine NHL seasons.
Meloche, who played for 18 seasons in the NHL and retired in 1988, will now scout for the Pens while Bales, the roving development instructor for the organization's goalie prospects the past two seasons, moves to the big club. Bales played a handful of NHL games for the Bruins and Senators, but mostly saw action as a minor leaguer and in Europe during an 20-year career that began at Ohio State University in 1989 and ended with the Straubing Tigers of the German league in 2010.
"[Bales is] a guy who played for a long time," Fleury told RDS. "He knows what's going on these days. It will be good to have a new approach.
"For me, it will bring a new vision for the way I goal tend, so we'll see."
One major critique of Fleury's game in recent years is that he relies upon his exceptional athleticism and not goaltending technique. Bales could help remedy that.
"Mike is a student of the game, technically with the styles around the league and what's important and what makes a good goaltender in the National Hockey League," Shero said Monday on the Penguins' website. "Mike has got excellent communication skills, he's got a great personality and he played pro 15 years, so he understands the position. He understands the goalies. He's worked with some great goaltending coaches in his career. He understands what it takes and what goalies expect."
It's difficult to overstate how critical the relationship between a goalie and his goalie coach has become. In the days before coaching staffs, some NHL bench bosses -- especially those who had been forwards during their playing days -- didn't speak to their netminders at all, believing that nothing they could say would help. When the NHL mandated in the mid-1980s that all teams carry two goalies, the duo usually helped each other. Now, that's all changed. Relationships like Martin Brodeur had with his longtime Devils goalie coach Jacques Caron developed into a true partnership. The Pens hope Bales can do something similar with Fleury.
"He is extremely (unassuming)," Predators longtime goalie coach Mitch Korn, who has known Bales since 1997, said on the Pens website. "He is not an emotional guy. He doesn't have any panic in him. He is a voice of reason. I think especially as a goalie coach, when coaches around you tend to become very emotional -- especially about a goal that went in and they may not think was a good goal -- I think that being the voice of reason and being able to communicate in a manner that's not threatening, that's not emotional, that is logical and rational, is really a good trait. And he possesses all of that."
Korn added, "I think (being a high-character guy) is really important in any business, at any position. But the reality is, especially in goal when you're a specialty coach, the guys that you work with absolutely have to believe in you. That they believe you have their best interests in mind. That you don't have or display a selfish bone in your body. And Mike is exactly that way. High character, doesn't have a selfish bone in his body, he's a 100 percent team guy. So that's really important."
Like Korn, both Shero and Bylsma believe they've found the right guy to work with Fleury and help him rediscover, and perhaps reinvent himself. With only two seasons left on his $5 million a year deal in the new, lower salary cap world, and with Jeff Zatkoff having posted an impressive 1.93 average and .920 save percentage for AHL Scranton Wilkes-Barre last season, Fleury needs to rebound from this career low point. His new goalie coach and the sports psychologist could play major roles in the path his career takes from here.