NHL.com continues its preview of the 2013-14 season, which will include in-depth looks at all 30 teams throughout September.
Marc-Andre Fleury was already guaranteed to be the guy with the most pressure on him for the Pittsburgh Penguins this season, but Tomas Vokoun's absence could magnify it.
After back-to-back postseason flops, the goaltender who helped the Penguins to the Stanley Cup in 2009 returned to Pittsburgh for training camp despite the protestations of fans and critics who felt the team should go in a different direction.
General manager Ray Shero, coach Dan Bylsma and captain Sidney Crosby were all consistent in their support for Fleury, refusing to believe that he can't regain the form he has produced during the regular season the past three seasons.
"That’s been the tough thing for Marc. It is difficult, because he’s won a Stanley Cup and the way he played for us was incredible," Shero said. "He’s had a lot of great games in the playoffs, but unfortunately since we’ve won the Cup I think what people remember especially is the Philly series where he didn’t play particularly well at all a year ago. Certainly, this year against the Islanders after Game 1 where he had a shutout, in Games 2, 3 and 4 it wasn’t good enough. We thought we could still win the series, and we were fortunate to be able to turn to Tomas Vokoun and Tomas ended up having a great playoffs."
When drafting a list of what to watch for in Pittsburgh this season, Fleury is the obvious choice at the top of the list.
1. Where does Fleury go from here?
Every time Fleury yields five goals on 22 shots during the 2013-14 season, his critics will point and say, 'I told you so.' Every time Fleury pitches a 38-save shutout, those same people will say it doesn't matter until the postseason.
Goalie - PIT
GAA: 2.39 | SVP: 0.916
That's the world Fleury is going to live in for the next six months. He's going to spend the time working on some technical things and trying to rebuild his confidence with a new goaltending coach. He's also going to have to play a lot of games, and while the Penguins will score bushels of goals, they're going to need Fleury to be consistent if they hope to win the new Metropolitan Division.
He doesn't need to be great, but solid and consistent would work for Pittsburgh. If that happens, he'll have another chance to exorcise some of those bad memories from the past two postseasons in the spring.
Fleury is young enough to put his struggles behind him and have a long and successful career. The 2013-14 season does look like something of a crossroads for him though.
"Our group has the back of Marc-Andre Fleury just as I think they do for Tomas Vokoun because it is a tight group," Shero said. "That is commendable, but in the end guys have to perform. You have to make decisions on popular players all the time. That is part of the job. We want to give Marc-Andre every opportunity to try and succeed."
2. What about Vokoun, and the backup role?
The reason Fleury is going to play a lot for the Penguins is they don't know when Vokoun will be able to play for them again. Vokoun is out indefinitely after having emergency surgery earlier this month because of a blood clot in his pelvis.
Vokoun is expected to meet with doctors in the coming days, and at that point a better timetable could be available. The veteran had an issue with a blood clot in April 2006 when he played with the Nashville Predators.
Jeff Zatkoff is expected to get the first chance to backup Fleury. Zatkoff had a 1.93 goals against average and .920 save percentage in the American Hockey League last season, but the 26-year-old has never appeared in an NHL game.
"Obviously it's unfortunate how it happened but it's an exciting situation for me," Zatkoff told NHL.com. "Obviously this is the opportunity I've been waiting on for a while now in my career and I feel the time I've spent in the minors has helped prepare me for it. I feel I'm ready."
3. Will the sting from the end of last season linger?
PENGUINS 30 IN 15 RELATED STORIES
On paper, the Penguins remain one of the most talented teams in the League. The offense should continue to flourish, and the defense could improve with the return of Rob Scuderi and the potential for better depth with steps forward from young guys like Simon Despres and Robert Bortuzzo and mid-season callups like Brian Dumoulin and Scott Harrington.
So beyond the goaltending, what else is there to be concerned with in Pittsburgh? Not much, obviously, but the Penguins will need to show they have put the four-game sweep by the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference Final behind them.
They can win the division and possibly earn the No. 1 seed in the East, but a slow start wouldn't be the ideal way to try and reach those goals.
"It is time to move on and take some positives from getting down to the final four," Shero said. "Twenty-six other teams would have loved to be in our situation, and realize and know that Boston was a really good team and a good opponent.
"The playoffs are tough, and there are good teams in the playoffs. Certainly we had hands full with the Islanders and Ottawa gave us a tough test, but Boston deserved to win and it is time to move on."