The Blue Jackets' Cody Goloubef, front, checks the Penguins' Evgeni Malkin into the boards in the first period Sunday in the teams' preseason game in Columbus, Ohio.
Jay LaPrete/Associated Press
Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, right, protects the net as teammate Joe Vitale, left, and the Blue Jackets' Brandon Dubinsky fight for a loose puck in the second period Sunday in Columbus.
By Dave Molinari Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- He does not, Mike Bales acknowledges, know Marc-Andre Fleury all that well.
They had lunch this summer and have had a few conversations.
Even spent a little extra time together on the ice after practice a few days ago, for that matter.
Doesn't mean they've gotten particularly close. Not yet, anyway.
But there is at least one thing about Fleury of which Bales, who has replaced Gilles Meloche as the Penguins goaltending coach, seems quite certain.
He sounds convinced that Fleury, who is coming off a series of disappointing playoff performances, can reclaim a spot among the NHL's premier goaltenders.
"Absolutely, he can," Bales said. "He's very skilled. He's obviously very athletic and has a lot of abilities that, quite frankly, most guys in the league don't have.
"Absolutely, he can be an elite-level guy in this league. There's no doubt about that."
Fleury played the first two periods of the Penguins' preseason opener, a 5-4 loss to Columbus Sunday at Nationwide Arena. He had 10 saves and allowed two goals, both on power plays.
Tomas Vokoun, who is scheduled to start when the Penguins face Detroit in a preseason game tonight at Consol Energy Center, supplanted Fleury as the go-to goalie for Game 5 of their opening-round playoff series against the New York Islanders this spring and held the job through a four-game loss to Boston in the Eastern Conference final.
Last week, however, coach Dan Bylsma made it clear that Fleury still is the franchise's No. 1 goalie and said he is penciled in to start the majority of the games in 2013-14.
That means that whatever success the Penguins have in the regular season -- and, more importantly, beyond -- will hinge largely on the quality of Fleury's work.
Bales said a few days ago he does not believe Fleury's game requires a major overhaul, that a little technical tweaking is all he has in mind.
"There are some little adjustments that I think definitely will help him and push him back into that elite status," Bales said.
Fleury appears to be receptive to at least listening to -- and experimenting with -- whatever ideas Bales has for him.
"I'm not going to change everything," Fleury said. "I don't think he wants me to. Little things here and there.
"I'll try [his suggestions]. If I like, good. If I don't, I'll do what I used to."
Whatever soft spots there might be in Fleury's game -- handling the puck immediately comes to mind -- the greatest asset he, or any other goaltender, can have is confidence.
A goalie who genuinely believes he's going to stop everything thrown at him likely will stop a hefty percentage of those shots, at least. A guy whose faith in his ability is wavering can expect to fish a lot of pucks out of his net.
Bolstering Fleury's confidence, then maintaining it, is part of Bales' job description, even though Fleury ultimately is responsible for his own mindset.
Bales said he still is getting a feel for Fleury's psyche, but volunteered that criticism of Fleury's mental toughness is misguided.
"There's a little bit of a misconception with Marc," he said. "People say he's not mentally strong, and I would disagree with that.
"If you look back two years ago, he had a poor series against Philadelphia, things didn't work out well for him, and he bounced back and had a great regular season.
"If he was not mentally strong, he would not have had a good regular season [in 2011-12]. I think some people are forgetting about that."
Of course, most of the criticism Fleury receives focuses on his postseason work since he preserved the Penguins' 2009 Stanley Cup by denying Detroit's Nicklas Lidstrom in the waning seconds of Game 7.
And it is what he does in April and May, not November and December, by which his 2013-14 performance will be assessed.
"The playoffs are the measuring stick for the entire team," Bales said. "I don't think you can just say it's the measuring stick for Marc-Andre Fleury.
"Obviously, the Pittsburgh Penguins' goal is to win the Stanley Cup. If you fall short of that, obviously you haven't accomplished what you want to.
"It's what the Pittsburgh Penguins are all about, winning. Ultimately, all of us will be judged on our playoffs."