For all of Marc-Andre Fleury
’s talents and spectacular athletic abilities, his most dominant physical trait may be his smile. Penguins fans have enjoyed that broad, ear-to-ear grin since Fleury joined the organization as an 18-year-old in 2003.
“It’s hard to believe it’s been nine years,” said Fleury, who celebrated his 27th birthday Nov. 28. “It feels like yesterday. I still remember my first game. It’s crazy how quick it goes.”
During his short career, Fleury has already led the Penguins to two Stanley Cup Finals and a championship in 2009, won Team MVP in 2010-11 and was named an NHL All-Star. When it’s all said and done, Fleury will likely go down as the greatest netminder in franchise history.
Despite the large number of injuries the team sustained last year and this season with marquee names out of the lineup like Sidney Crosby
, Evgeni Malkin
, Jordan Staal
and Kris Letang
, the team has remained highly competitive – and a big reason for that is having No. 29 between the pipes.
“We hear the talk about great goaltenders around the league,” head coach Dan Bylsma said. “Marc-Andre Fleury
has the Stanley Cup and big games to go with it. The consistency he had last year was at another level for Marc-Andre. He’s an extremely talented goaltender, but the consistency he showed last year and again this year has really been a big part of the confidence to go out and know you’re going to be in hockey games and know you’re going to have a chance at every hockey game. I think he’s right up there at the top of the league with the best goalies.”
Fleury reached an impressive career milestone Dec. 17 in Pittsburgh’s 8-3 win over Buffalo
| See more photos from Fleury's 200th win here. |
with his 200th career regular-season victory. Fleury became only the second goalie in franchise history to win 200 games (Tom Barrasso, 226).
“It’s pretty cool,” Fleury said. “You don’t really think about it when you come in the league, but I’m fortunate to play with many good players and many good teams.”
“For as young as he is to get 200 wins is extraordinary,” fellow netminder Brent Johnson
said. “It’s huge. I’ve been playing in this league a long time and I’m not coming close to that. It’s unbelievable.”
But for a bigger perspective, Fleury became the fourth-youngest netminder since the Expansion Era in the NHL to reach 200 wins at 27 years, 19 days, trailing only Grant Fuhr (26 years, 122 days), Martin Brodeur (26 years, 343 days) and Tom Barrasso (26 years, 354 days).
That’s some pretty elite company to have your name listed among, and it’s possible that people will start mentioning Fleury’s name as belonging with that elite company.
“One day they will start talking like that,” Johnson said. “He’s so young still, 27 years old is still a baby in a lot of eyes, especially for a goalie.“
“He’s just getting into his prime at 27,” goaltender coach Gilles Meloche said. “You look at the goalies in the league at 27 and their just coming into their own. ‘Flower’ I believe is a top 3 or 4 goalies in the league and he’ll get better.”
Fleury has done a lot of maturing up in the past nine years, particularly with his mental toughness and play on the ice.
“He’s a really committed guy, a competitive player. That’s why he’s as good as he is,” Orpik said. “He gets upset when he makes mistakes, but he bounces back really quickly. That’s actually the one area where he’s grown the most, how he responds to a loss or bad goal. Before it would affect him a lot longer, but now he bounces right back.”
“A lot of it is experience, going through tough games, go through games with a lot of pressure and stress, that makes you a better player,” Fleury said. “Mentally once you’ve battled through those games and know what it’s like and get to a regular season game and down two (goals) you aren’t nervous for the next shot. You know you can do it and the games not over. I think I’ve calmed down since those first years.”
“On the ice his consistency and play around the net has improved 100 percent,” Meloche said. “He’s more under control. That comes with experience. The older you get, the game slows in front of you. You don’t need to chase all those pucks. Bottom line is positioning. You have to trust where you are and not chase pucks.”
And yet for as much growing as he’s done and accomplished on the ice, not much has changed his personality as he is still the always-smiling presence in the locker room that has endeared him to teammates.
Whether he’s pulling a prank on a teammate, displaying some shootout antics at practice or just providing some comical relief, Fleury has the fun-loving personality of a big kid.
“I wish I could say he’s more mature, I mean that in a good way,” joked defenseman Brooks Orpik
, who has been with Fleury since he joined the Penguins organization. “He’s a pretty carefree guy. He likes to joke around. He never takes anything too, too seriously. … He’s the same old guy. None of the success has gone to his head. He’s a fun, simple guy.”
“Who can’t get along with that guy?” Brent Johnson
asked rhetorically. “He’s a favorite in Pittsburgh. He’s hands down the best goaltender I’ve ever played with on and off the ice.”
Fleury’s light speed-like reflexes and athletic ability as an 18-year-old Junior player had scouts salivating at the prospect of drafting him in 2003. Pittsburgh traded up in the draft to land the top pick and they selected their goaltender of the future.
“I didn’t know much about Pittsburgh other than Mario and I always liked Barrasso too,” Fleury said. “Coming in for training camp and playing with all these older guys, big names like Mario. It was really weird and intimidating.”
Fleury’s performance in training camp was impressive enough that then head coach Ed Olczyk rewarded him with a spot on the team’s roster at the start of the regulation season. Fleury, at just 18 years old, made his NHL debut Oct. 10, 2003 against the Los Angeles Kings at Mellon Arena.
It was a rough start was as Eric Belanger scored a goal just 38 seconds into the game on a shorthanded breakaway. However, Fleury settled down and put together one of the most brilliant goaltending performances in team history. He allowed only two goals and stopped 46 pucks, including a penalty shot by Esa Pirnes, in a memorable moment in his career.
“He was the quickest goalie in the league by a mile,” Meloche remembered. “He just relied on those reflexes a lot. He still has the quickest legs in the league.”
“His rookie year you could see flashes of it. He was so young,” Orpik said. “Most goalies come in when they’re 23, 25. He’s 18 when he comes in. He’s accomplished a lot to this point.”
Fleury has left his mark on Penguins history in just nine seasons, and he’s showing no signs of slowing down.
“I really love what I do. I feel very luck for doing this everyday,” Fleury said. “When I get out there and put on the pads I still feel like a kid.”
And he still smiles like a kid.