For hockey fans outside of Pittsburgh, Marc-Andre Fleury is one of the true feel-good stories of the 2017 Stanley Cup playoffs. Their version is simple: a late-season injury set the stage for Fleury to lose his job while the Penguins won the Cup last spring, and this spring an injury to the man who took his job set the stage for Fleury to regain it and push his team into the Conference Final.
Of course, that really just touches the surface. As many fans in Pittsburgh realize, the arc of Fleury’s career tells a more complicated and compelling tale, especially now that his 29-save performance in Game 7 at Washington Wednesday lifted the Penguins past the Capitals – perfectly capping a series in which he was the primary reason for victory.
Fleury was talented enough as an 18-year-old in 2003 to become just the third goaltender ever drafted first overall, yet unlucky enough to be dogged by memories of a fluke goal that cost Team Canada the World Junior title seven months later. He was talented enough to earn playing time with a terrible Penguins team right out of junior in 2003-04, yet unlucky enough to have been drafted by a team so financially strapped that it pushed and pulled him from the AHL to the NHL and back during the first half of the 2005-06 season just to save a little money.
This wasn’t exactly the blueprint for developing what you hoped to be your franchise goaltender. But Fleury soldiered on and excelled anyway.
Once he stayed put in the NHL and the young Penguins began to find their way, Fleury was winning games based on his quickness and athletic ability despite struggling with rebound control and fluky goals – challenges that really have never left him. By the spring of 2008 he was superb in helping Pittsburgh to the Cup Final, and one year later he backstopped the Penguins to their first Cup in 17 years.
By then the always-smiling Fleury had also established himself as a great and supportive teammate, and he just kept winning and having fun. But playoff disappointments that began in 2010 were exacerbated by a team-wide meltdown in a first-round loss to Philadelphia in 2012, and by 2013 Fleury lost his job to Tomas Vokoun under a series of uneven playoff performances.
That’s where Fleury really came to a career crossroads, and he agreed to work with a sports psychologist to get himself back on track as Pittsburgh’s No. 1 goaltender. And he got there, continuing to win even if playoff success eluded the Penguins again in 2014 and 2015 – though his play was not the deciding factor in those early exits. By now he had become a strangely polarizing figure for many fans who put the team’s inability to win additional Cups squarely on his doorstep.
When rookie Matt Murray took the Penguins to the 2016 Cup with some superb play – his style very much a complete contrast to Fleury’s – Fleury was suddenly a backup with a very uncertain future in a town where he felt so comfortable and wanted to finish his career. Through the 2016-17 season, it was evident not only that coach Mike Sullivan preferred Murray but that Murray was the more consistent goaltender – until he was injured in the warmup for Game 1 of the 2017 playoffs against Columbus.
Having been so publicly pushed out of the spotlight just one year earlier, Fleury suddenly was back in it, an absolutely critical figure for a Penguins team trying to become the first team in the salary cap era to win consecutive titles. And after two rounds he has been more than up to the job.
At 32, Fleury doesn’t seem to have a future in Pittsburgh beyond this summer, a situation complicated by the expansion draft and the reality the Penguins cannot protect both of their goaltenders. Murray, who turns 23 this month, is Pittsburgh’s goaltender of the future. Fleury, as he should, just wants to play.
So these playoffs certainly feel like the last chapter of Fleury’s career here, but what a chapter it is turning out to be. We haven’t gotten to the end, and of course there’s no guarantee it will end happily. If it does, however, that would be entirely fitting for a kid who came here with nothing but promise and, despite the obstacles, has become the greatest goaltender in team history.