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Fleury ready for spotlight entering camp with Golden Knights

'Humble' goalie, three-time Cup winner face of expansion team

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / NHL.com Columnist

Marc-Andre Fleury stood in front of the net, holding his goalie stick, ready to go, as he had so many times before in his NHL career.

Except now he represented the Vegas Golden Knights, not the Pittsburgh Penguins. He was outside Rockefeller Center in New York with Edmonton Oilers captain Connor McDavid, New York Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh and Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Seth Jones, not inside an arena with his teammates. He wore his jersey over clothes, not equipment.

"No cup," he said.

Uh-oh.

Matt Lauer stood a few feet away with a stick, a bunch of orange street hockey balls and a burning desire to score in front of a national TV audience on NBC's "Today" show.

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"Let's see how many goals we can make on Marc-Andre Fleury, all right?" said Lauer, a co-anchor.

Lauer fired his first shot right into Fleury's midsection. He kept firing and firing.

"And he kept coming closer and closer," Fleury said with a laugh. "Oh, jeez."

After Lauer's last shot, Fleury flexed his left leg.

"There were a few stingers," Fleury said. "I was one time scared for my, uh …"

Well, you know.

Fleury played along and smiled through it all, taking a pat on the shoulder from Lauer, who apologized for the slap shots, and that said it all.

He was a face of the Penguins, a player who loved his team, teammates and fans and was beloved by them. But he was not the face of the franchise. He never went on the NHL Player Media Tour in New York like he did last week. It was always Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin.

He will be the face of the Golden Knights, however, the key player on and off the ice as the expansion team establishes itself and the sport in a new market. He might see lots of shots. Sometimes it might hurt.

Video: Marc-Andre Fleury speaks about his first day in Vegas

Golden Knights veterans report to training camp Thursday. Their first practice is Friday. The first of seven preseason games will be at the Vancouver Canucks on Sunday (5 p.m. ET; NHLN, SN, TVA Sports, ATTSN-RM).

"It's not something I want, really," Fleury said. "It's fine with Sid doing all this. I don't play to be the face of [a franchise]. I love the game. I love to play hockey."

Which, of course, is perfect.

"We understand that he may not want to be the face of the franchise," Golden Knights general manager George McPhee said. "But he is a humble guy, and he's saying the right things. He will be popular with our fans. They will grow to enjoy his play and his personality, because he is a very unaffected athlete.

"We really believe it was a huge acquisition for this hockey club. The playing ability and the leadership are going to be really important to the quick development of this franchise."

* * * * * 

To understand Fleury and why he will be huge for the Golden Knights, understand the whole story of how he landed in Las Vegas.

Fleury was the No. 1 pick of the 2003 NHL Draft and the starting goaltender when the Penguins won the Stanley Cup in 2009, sealing the championship with a late save on defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom in Game 7 of the Final against the Detroit Red Wings.

He won tons of games and goodwill over the years, sometimes shouting with joy when he made saves because he was having fun, never blaming teammates when pucks slipped past him, sometimes swallowing his pride on the bench.

He sustained a concussion toward the end of the 2015-16 season, opening the door for rookie Matt Murray. Fleury backed up Murray for most of the Stanley Cup Playoffs as the Penguins won another championship.

Fleury was 31 and signed for three more seasons at an NHL salary-cap charge of $5.75 million. Murray was 22, had one more season at a cap charge of $902,500 and soon would sign a three-year contract at a cap charge of $3.75 million.

"It was obvious they were going to keep him in the long term," Fleury said.

Fleury had a no-movement clause in his contract, and GM Jim Rutherford wanted to keep both goaltenders for another season to give the Penguins the best chance to repeat.

Rutherford laid out the possibilities for Fleury before training camp: He could trade him, expose him in the NHL Expansion Draft, buy him out or keep him for the rest of his contract.

Video: Fleury talks about accepting the Vegas challenge

The best for the Penguins was if Fleury would agree to be exposed in the expansion draft. If Fleury didn't, to avoid exposing Murray they would have to trade Fleury or buy him out. 

"The key last summer was getting to a point that he was going to be OK another year in Pittsburgh with having two No. 1 goalies, but with him understanding and me understanding that couldn't last forever: one, because of our cap system, and two, because it would be difficult to do for a long time and both goalies accept it," Rutherford said. "So with that understanding, we just talked about different situations. What would be something that made sense for him?

"We all knew at that point that Vegas was coming in. Is that something that made sense?"

Fleury could have asked for a trade. He didn't.

He could have declined to waive his no-movement clause, knowing the Penguins would have to buy him out or keep him -- and if they bought him out, he could take his money and choose his next team as an unrestricted free agent. He didn't.

He told Rutherford that if asked, he would waive his no-movement clause for the expansion draft. He was willing to work with the Penguins because of his love for his team, teammates and fans, and the chance to win the Cup again. There was also still a chance he could stay in Pittsburgh. You never know what can happen with injuries and performance.

He and his agent, Allan Walsh, stayed in constant contact with Rutherford. The Penguins officially asked Fleury to waive his no-movement clause for the expansion draft before the 2017 NHL Trade Deadline (March 1), and he agreed to do it. But it wasn't certain he would go to Vegas.

"It was nothing set in stone," Fleury said.

All the while, Fleury and Murray got along. Murray played 49 games (47 starts) and went 32-10-4 with a 2.41 goals-against average, .923 save percentage and four shutouts. Fleury played 38 games (34 starts) and went 18-10-7 with a 3.02 GAA, a .909 save percentage and one shutout.

"It was kind of a competition between [Murray] and [Fleury], but at the same time, it wasn't," Penguins forward Tom Kuhnhackl said. "They helped each other. They supported each other. They had a great relationship. It's not like they were fighting with each other.

"You know [Fleury]. He has the experience. He took it as a real leader, and he supported [Murray] in all kinds of ways. That's what made those two a great combo."

Fleury was supposed to back up Murray in the playoffs. But Murray sustained an injury before Game 1 of the Eastern Conference First Round against the Blue Jackets, opening the door for Fleury. While Murray recovered, Fleury carried the Penguins through two rounds, going 8-4 with a .927 save percentage and one shutout.

The shutout came in Game 7 of the second round against the Washington Capitals, the winners of the Presidents' Trophy with the League's best regular-season team record, when many thought the Penguins would finally lose to their rivals. At that point, Fleury was a candidate to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as MVP of the playoffs.

"It was why I wanted to make sure he stayed another year," Rutherford said.

What if Murray had not recovered during the playoffs? What if Fleury had stayed in the net and the Penguins had won the Cup? What if Fleury had won the Conn Smythe? Maybe it would have turned out differently. Had the Penguins decided to trade Murray, he would have reaped a considerable return.

We'll never know. Fleury allowed four goals on 13 shots in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Second Round against the Ottawa Senators. Coach Mike Sullivan went back to Murray. Fleury was the backup as Murray went 7-3 with a .937 save percentage the rest of the way and the Penguins won the Cup again.

Fleury could have been bitter. He wasn't. 

After the Penguins defeated the Nashville Predators in the Final, Fleury hoisted the Cup and paraded it around the ice at Bridgestone Arena. He passed it to Murray.

"It means everything to me, honestly," Murray said. "The fact he handed me the Cup there, that was one of the most special moments in my life for sure."

Rutherford informed Fleury he would be exposed in the expansion draft. But even then, it wasn't certain he would go to Vegas. The Golden Knights could have acquired another goaltender and claimed another player from the Penguins.

It wasn't until shortly before the expansion draft, held on June 21, that Fleury knew for sure. Rutherford traded a second-round pick in the 2020 NHL Draft to the Golden Knights to ensure they would take him.

"In every player's time with a team -- except the very few who spend their entire careers in one place -- there's a beginning, there's a middle and there's an end," Walsh said. "It's just the reality of professional sports. Sometimes the end, it's not an end-well, feel-good end to the story. And in this case, it could not have ended any better for everyone. Truly."

The Penguins got a season with Murray and Fleury, and another championship. Fleury got another season in Pittsburgh and another championship, and was a key contributor.

"We wouldn't have won without him," Rutherford said.

Now the Penguins have Murray, and Fleury's cap space as Murray's $3.75 million cap charge kicks in. Fleury has a chance to be a No. 1 goaltender. The Golden Knights get a goaltender with three rings who can play at a high level at 32. They get a guy who has played all types of roles, can set an example for his teammates and can connect with the community.

"I think he's going to thrive in that situation," Murray said. "He likes being the go-to guy. He likes being the No. 1, playing lots of games. He's got that personality. He likes to be in the spotlight, crack jokes and be the face of a franchise. I think if you want a guy to lead the way for your team, especially starting out from expansion, I think [Fleury] would be a good guy to have."

* * * * *

This tells you all you need to know about Marc-Andre Fleury:

On June 19, in his final official function as a member of the Penguins, he and his wife, Veronique, dedicated a state-of-the-art playground at a Boys & Girls Club outside Pittsburgh that they co-financed with the Pittsburgh Penguins Foundation. They also purchased supplies for the club and donated equipment for its indoor dek hockey rink, now named Rink 29 after his jersey number.

Two days later, he was at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas for the expansion draft. After he was selected, he pulled on a Golden Knights jersey and sat onstage for a roundtable discussion with fans.

The next day, he was up bright and early for media availability at The Armory team store and helped with a street hockey clinic for local kids, bending down and strapping on their goalie pads, teaching them how to hold sticks and shoot.

"Throughout the season, we can meet kids and show passion about the game, and maybe some kids will like it and pick it up and have fun playing," Fleury said that day. "That's all that matters."

Letting go of Pittsburgh was a process. Fleury played 13 seasons for the Penguins; only Mario Lemieux has played more. Fleury holds a number of Penguins records, including those for regular-season games played by a goalie (691), regular-season wins (375), playoff wins (62) and regular-season shutouts (44).

It might still be a process. Fleury will be watching the Penguins from afar, cheering for them, not hoping they struggle without him. He has circled when the Penguins visit Vegas (Dec. 14) and when the Golden Knights visit Pittsburgh (Feb. 6). It's going to be quite the scene at PPG Paints Arena that night.

But once he started training in the offseason at home in Montreal, he started to focus on Vegas -- that the Golden Knights wanted him, that he will be their No. 1 goaltender, that they should be decent for an expansion team right away. Suggest that he will see lots of rubber and will have to be excellent for them to be competitive, and he doesn't necessarily agree.

"I guess we'll see pretty soon, right?" Fleury said. "It's tough. I think we have a lot of great defensemen. I think the team we have right now is good and will get better over the years because of all the draft picks they got. I don't know. I'll take it one game at a time, trying to stop the pucks, try to give our team a chance to win every night, and go from there."

Remember that when Fleury joined the Penguins, they were essentially starting from scratch. He has been through the building of a team from bottom to top.

"Having a chance to play for a new franchise and set the bar while I'm there and trying to make this a winning team," he said, "I love that challenge."

They're going to love him.

NHL.com senior writer Dan Rosen and correspondent Wes Crosby contributed to this report.

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