From left to right: Craig Patrick, Eddie Johnston, Marc-Andre Fleury, Greg Malone, Eddie Olcyzk
Eddie Johnston knows a thing or two about goaltending.
Before transitioning behind the bench and then to the front office, Johnston was an NHL netminder himself. He played in 591 career games, including 11 straight seasons with the Boston Bruins – where he was teammates with the legendary Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito and Johnny Bucyk and won a pair of Stanley Cup championships during the franchise’s heyday.
So Johnston knows firsthand what it’s like to not only play in this league, but be successful in it. And he can’t say enough about what Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury has been able to do thus far, both in his career and for this organization.
Fleury, 29, became the 31st netminder to reach 300 wins on Monday vs. the Boston Bruins. He is the third-fastest and third-youngest netminder to reach that number. Fleury is also the franchise’s leader in wins and shutouts (32).
“It’s absolutely amazing what he has done,” Johnston said. “I don’t think there’s any other goalkeeper in hockey that’s been as consistent as he has.”
Johnston would know, as he’s been with Fleury since Day 1. Johnston was the Penguins assistant general manager when the team drafted Fleury first overall in 2003, and he knew right away that the 18-year-old from Sorel, Quebec had what it took to be a franchise goaltender.
“You spot those guys pretty early,” Johnston said. “All you had to do was talk to them and see the confidence they have in themselves and their ability. Being an ex-goalkeeper, we picked that up pretty quick with Fleury. His competitiveness, his ability to get around his net – his athletic ability was outstanding. The big thing is that he was very, very competitive.”
Heading into that draft, the Penguins originally had the third-overall pick after finishing the previous season 29th out of 30 teams.
While the Penguins certainly had a lot of issues heading into the offseason, their biggest problem was between the pipes. They had no clear-cut starting netminder, as the Penguins had split the season between three different goalies: Johan Hedberg (41 games played), Sebastien Caron (24 games played) and Jean-Sebastien Aubin (21 games played).
“We definitely needed a goalkeeper and that was our No. 1 priority at the time,” Johnston said.
As it worked out, there was a very special prospect playing the position heading into that draft. Fleury garnered the attention of the hockey world with his spectacular performance at the 2003 World Junior Championship –where he backstopped Canada to a silver medal. Fleury went 4-1 at the tournament, with his only loss coming to Russia in the title game. He led all goaltenders with a 1.57 goals-against average and ranked third with a .928 save percentage.
At the end of his third junior season with the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, Fleury earned the Mike Bossy Trophy as the league’s top prospect and the Telus Cup as the top defensive player.
After all of that, NHL Central Scouting listed Fleury as the No. 1 North American goaltender heading into the draft. However, the Penguins staff was aware of how special he was long before all of those honors, awards and rankings.
“We knew that way before the draft,” Johnston said. “(Chief scout) Greg Malone and everybody, we were unanimous in picking him as our No. 1 pick. We were so strong on him that it was important for us to get him. So anything we had to do, anything (general manager) Craig Patrick had to do to get him, we did.”
That meant eliminating all risk of either Florida, who had the No. 1-overall pick, or Carolina, who was slotted second, taking Fleury at the draft. So Patrick traded the third-overall pick (Nathan Horton), their 55th pick (Stefan Meyer), and Mikael Samuelsson to the Panthers in exchange for the first-overall pick, the 73rd pick (Dan Carcillo) and the right to draft what the Penguins felt was their future franchise goaltender.
The biggest thing Johnston remembers from that summer night in Nashville was just how ecstatic Fleury was to become a Pittsburgh Penguin.
“Just when he came up, the smile he had from ear-to-ear – he was just overjoyed to come to Pittsburgh,” Johnston said.
Fleury reported to training camp that September and earned the right to start in the Penguins’ regular-season and home opener on Oct. 10 vs. Los Angeles despite being an 18-year-old rookie.
“He came into training camp and he was very strong in our training camp,” Johnston said. “He had a very good camp. It didn’t take him very long to get adjusted to the top shooters in the game. Once we saw him at training camp, it was an easy decision for Craig Patrick to make sure he stayed up for a while.”
The Penguins felt Fleury’s competitiveness was one of his biggest assets when they drafted him, and learned quickly that his demeanor was just as much of a strength.
“He just had that personality about him,” Johnston said. “He’s upbeat all the time. And he still is. You go in the dressing room, and if you talk to him, he’s smiling all the time. And it’s never the team’s fault, he takes the onus on him. I think that’s why the players love him.”
Over the years, Johnston’s seen Fleury develop into more of a team leader.
“He’s matured. Now he’s a prankster a little bit in the dressing room, the guys love him and he takes charge,” Johnston said. “The players know that he’s probably the main reason we’ve had the success we’ve had.”
Johnston believes Fleury firmly established himself as the Penguins’ franchise goalie when he led the organization to the Stanley Cup in 2009.
“We got beat the year before here, and then we go in Detroit and to bounce back after the sixth game, he played unbelievable in the seventh game,” Johnston said. “That pretty well told us he was the franchise goaltender.”