Can you be falling off a guy’s bandwagon, yet be standing more firmly in his corner than ever before?

That’s where I am with Marc Andre Fleury.

I’ve never hidden it. I’m an unabashed fan of Fleury’s. I can’t think of another athlete that I’ve enjoyed covering more than him. I may have seen other athletes take as much crap (or even more *throat clear…KORDELL*) as he has. But I’ve never seen one whose personality changed so little as a result.

Rough early years maturing behind horrible teams. The 2012 Philadelphia post season gong show. Benched for Tomas Vokoun in the 2013 playoffs. Some in Pittsburgh wanted to toss Fleury aside and blame him for every goal in those stretches.

But he never snapped at reporters. Never made snide comments about the fans. Never blamed anyone else.

“Yeah, I guess sometimes you feel like everyone wants to…uh, how do you say that…hit me with the bus,” said a laughing Fleury in one of his trademarked “Franglais” attempts at turning a phrase in the summer after that Flyers ‘12 debacle. “But that’s how it goes. You just come back and try to get better.”

And he did. In fact even the most trigger ready Fleury critics have holstered their doubt in the three most recent seasons as he’s tallied 108 wins, a 2.32 GAA, a .918 save %. In fact “Fleury Love” may have reached a peak this year as he kept the team afloat during the waning days of the Mike Johnston era until the rest of the team woke up once Mike Sullivan was hired.

But now a new dynamic is upon us. Pittsburgh is no longer calling for Marc Andre to stay on the bench because the fan base prefers to focus on his flaws.

Now, this time, it’s because there is someone even better. And actually, it might be right.


Matt Murray is unreal. Not just in comparison to Fleury. Compared to everybody. This might be the best young goalie we’ve seen break into the league since Carey Price. And I say that as someone who was one of the last strap hangers to say: “You gotta put Marc Andre back in there when he recovers from his concussion!”

But Murray’s Monday night performance against Washington has changed my mind. The Penguins have to ride this out. He was phenomenal in stopping 47 of 49 shots. Marc Andre Fleury was healthy enough to be the back up, and until Murray shows he needs one…that’s where Marc Andre should stay.

This isn’t going to Brent Johnson out of panic against the Flyers. This isn’t going to Vokoun because he’s on a hot streak against the Bruins. This is going to a pedigreed protege who appears to be arriving a few years earlier than expected. And Fleury himself even seems to realize that. When he spoke to reporters during those previous times after being benched, the message was (to paraphrase) “I get the move because I haven’t been playing well enough.” Now the message is “I get this move because the kid is playing his butt off.”

A typically cordial Fleury fielded questions after working with the optional skaters Tuesday. And he talked about what it was like to be healthy enough to play for the first time since his concussion March 31st, but unable to crack the starting lineup because of Murray’s stellar performance this post season.

“It’s fine. I haven’t played in a month now. And the important thing is us winning. Matty has given us a chance to win every time he has been in the net. I’ll stay ready. I’ll encourage him. It’s not a personal game. It’s a team game. And I’ll try my best to contribute to helps us win,” the goaltender said.

Head coach Mike Sullivan has deflected (at times angrily) repeated questions about his outlook on the goaltender position once Fleury was cleared to play. On Tuesday, Sullivan once again avoided flatly stating that the crease belongs to the rookie. But his glowing praise of how Fleury has handled the situation inferred an air of acceptance by all parties that the team has to keep playing the hot hand.

“He’s a team guy. He’s a god person. He understands the circumstance. And he rolls with it,” said Sullivan. “As a player all you can do is control what is within your control. What is good for us is that we have a healthy Marc Andre Fleury right now. That makes us a better team. He’s going to do everything he can to keep himself sharp so that when the times comes in he can help us win. He’s a terrific mentor and very supportive of what Matt has accomplished.”

Fleury was en route to what was likely going to be the best season of his career before it was snuffed by this concussion. With the way the Penguins have performed offensively since Sullivan’s arrival, it’s not a stretch to assume they’d be in exactly the same position they are in now if Fleury had gotten every start in these playoffs. If this team does win the Cup everything about Fleury says he deserves another clinching moment like the one had in Detroit as the clock hit all zeros. It’d prove that his career was far less roller coaster than his perception.

But what he doesn’t deserve is to be inserted into a situation where he’s set up to be the reason they lose to Washington in the middle of a tight series while a blossoming talent is red hot.

In a strange way, the best case scenario for the team may end up being the worst case scenario for Fleury if he wants to stay in Pittsburgh…which by all accounts seems to be the case. If Murray should carry this team to the Cup, Pittsburgh may be inclined to seek a trade for Fleury, if he’d waive his no movement/limited no trade clause. Or the organization may leave him unprotected if there is an expansion draft, depending on how the rules get hammered out. Failing all that, he may just be Murray’s back up until his contract expires after 2019.

Fleury paused briefly before answering a question about his long term future, and considered it. “I’m not there yet. The focus is still on winning this year. That’s where it has to be. And when it’s done, then we’ll see.”

I can only speak for myself, but I’m not there either.

Posted in Pittsburgh Penguins