Outside of GM Jim Rutherford and a few more inside the Penguins’ organization, no one knows for certain how close Pittsburgh may have come to dealing veteran goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury at the March trade deadline. But if there were any trade discussions at all surrounding Fleury, however brief or in-depth, Rutherford and Co. must be counting their lucky stars that they didn’t decide to pull the trigger and ship the 32-year-old netminder out of town.
Ahead of Game 1 of the Penguins’ Stanley Cup defense Wednesday, starting netminder Matt Murray suffered a lower-body injury that forced him not just out of crease for the evening, but entirely out of action. The result was Fleury, who was set to backup in the contest, getting the surprise start — and victory — with Tristan Jarry suiting up to fill the second-string role. And with Game 2 set to go Friday, Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan announced that Murray will be out once again, leaving the starting duties up to Fleury for a second-consecutive evening.
Though Fleury starting isn’t exactly the best-case scenario for the Penguins, one has to imagine it’s a massive relief that it’s even a scenario at all. Because, if we’re being honest, had Murray gone down with Jarry as the sole netminder available to spell the Penguins young No. 1, Pittsburgh’s title defense might not have ended up being much of a defense at all.
There’s no denying that Fleury’s numbers are nowhere close to what Murray achieved this season, and comparing the two makes quite clear the chasm in effectiveness between the netminders. Both played more than 1,500 minutes at 5-on-5 during the regular season, but Murray was better in save percentage by a margin of .934 to .917. Murray’s SP numbers against low-danger, mid-danger and high-danger shots are better than each of the marks posted by Fleury. And all of that is despite the fact that the Penguins have actually managed to keep more shots to the outside when Fleury’s been the starting netminder.
And that Murray has outperformed Fleury is no secret. It’s been that way since Murray took over for an injured Fleury in the final days of the 2015-16 campaign. Murray’s performance is why he took the starting reins and ran with them during the 2015-16 Stanley Cup run, with his mettle as a starting goaltender proven by his ability to stick around in Conn Smythe Trophy discussions throughout the post-season. Murray’s ability, which carried him to AHL top goaltender and rookie honors in 2014-15, was the reason why Fleury could have been expendable at the deadline in the first place.
But all of that is to overlook that Fleury is one season removed from a renaissance campaign. After several difficult years in the middle of his career, Fleury was as on top of his game in 2015-16 as he had been in years, posting an outstanding .921 SP and 2.29 goals-against average in nearly 60 games. At 5-on-5, Fleury’s SP was .933, and of goaltenders who played at least 2,000 minutes, there were only five who fared better.
And yes, there are some who will point to Fleury’s proclivity to make some bumbling errors at this time of year — in the four playoffs’ between 2010 and 2013, Fleury didn’t once maintain an above-.900 SP — but Fleury’s been to three Stanley Cup finals in his career and has one title under his belt as a starter. Looking only at his struggles also doesn’t give Fleury any credit for the way he’s played over his last two (albeit brief) runs in the playoffs as the Penguins’ starting goalie. In the 18 games he started from 2014 to 2015, Fleury registered a .919 SP and 2.32 GAA, even if it that happened to go along with an 8-10 record.
It’s not as if Murray wasn’t without his faults, either. He was undoubtedly excellent in the opening rounds of the post-season in 2015-16, but finished with a .912 SP and 2.11 GAA in the final two rounds. Purely statistically speaking, Murray was out-duelled by both Andrei Vasilevskiy and Martin Jones to close out the playoffs, but Pittsburgh emerged victorious regardless.
Let’s also not forget that this is a Penguins team that only needs good, not great, goaltending to win. Sure, the backend has taken a hit with the injury to the irreplaceable Kris Letang, but Olli Maatta and Trevor Daley were both back for Game 1 against the Blue Jackets and this is still a Penguins squad that possesses the ability to roll out three different lines that can contain a star scorer, be it Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin or Phil Kessel.
That’s why it’s far from a death knell that the Penguins have to go with Fleury at this time of year and the reason why that if Murray is out long-term — and there’s not yet any word on when he could be back — Fleury can still be the one to carry this Pittsburgh team to success. In Game 1, Fleury was as close to perfect as he could be, stopping 31 of 32 shots, having a steady hand all night and making the important saves when they were required. In Game 2, he’ll be asked to do the same.
Make no mistake, this will almost assuredly be Fleury’s last hurrah in Pittsburgh with the expansion draft and an all-important off-season looming, but if Fleury can continue to provide steady goaltending with Murray on the sideline, there’s no reason why he can’t write a storybook ending to his time as a Penguin.
Want more in-depth features and expert analysis on the game you love? Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.