Fleury needs to have a big season to earn more next year

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Marc-Andre Fleury says it's not about the money. "I want to win for these guys," he said, looking around the Penguins dressing room.

Still, the money is a powerful motivator. This is a contract year for Fleury, which could turn out to be a wonderful thing for the Penguins. The team needs for him to become an elite goaltender to take the next step in its evolution, go deeper in the playoffs and maybe compete for the Stanley Cup. He needs to have a big year to get the big money. You have to like those dynamics. Penguins management does. It's not especially upset it was unable to do a new deal with Fleury in the offseason. It signed NHL MVP Sidney Crosby and defenseman Ryan Whitney to big, long-term deals but wanted to get Fleury, who will make $1.6 million this season, for fewer years and at a more team-friendly price. Not surprisingly, he balked. Don't worry, though. Fleury isn't going anywhere any time soon. The Penguins control his rights this season and the next two when he will be eligible for salary arbitration.

They will have the right to match any offer he receives as a restricted free agent after the season. It's unusual for NHL teams to bid on another club's restricted free agent -- nothing drives up salaries in the league faster -- but it is not unprecedented. This summer, Edmonton general manager Kevin Lowe made huge offers to Buffalo forward Thomas Vanek and Anaheim forward Dustin Penner, prompting Anaheim general manager Brian Burke to blast Lowe for "an act of desperation by a general manager who is fighting to keep his job." Buffalo matched Vanek's offer. Anaheim lost Penner.

But even if a team takes a run at Fleury or he is awarded a big number in arbitration, the Penguins won't complain. That almost certainly would mean he had an extraordinary season and, considering how important he is to the team, it probably would mean a big year for the Penguins, as well. General manager Ray Shero gladly would pay more under those circumstances. He'll gladly pay for a sure thing.

It's understandable why Shero wants to see a little more from Fleury before he makes a sizable commitment. One reason is Shero has to be careful with the Penguins' money under the NHL's still-new salary cap because he is looking at big, new deals for forwards Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal after this season. But a bigger reason is Fleury -- still only 22 but starting his fourth season in the NHL -- has yet to prove he's a top-10 goalie. He hasn't won a playoff series.

Shero and coach Michel Therrien clearly believe Fleury is their guy for the long haul. They let veteran Jocelyn Thibault go in free agency this summer, leaving relatively unproven Dany Sabourin as their backup. The Penguins will go as far as Fleury takes them, starting in the opener Friday night at Carolina.

It's nice to think Fleury will be up to the challenge. His recent history suggests he's at his best under pressure. Last year at this time, Shero and Therrien encouraged the public perception that Fleury could start the season in the minors. He responded by playing well in the final exhibition game at Buffalo, making 40 saves to shut out Philadelphia in the opener and getting off to a 7-3 start.

"I thought he made a real statement there," Shero said.

Fleury made another in February. Therrien, who had a history with him at Wilkes-Barre and knows which of Fleury's buttons to push, benched him for two games and publicly criticized his play. Fleury responded by going 12-5 down the stretch, allowing more than three goals just twice. He played well in the first-round playoff series loss to Ottawa after giving up two soft goals in the first seven minutes of Game 1, experience that will be invaluable in April.

"Last year was definitely a stepping-stone year for him," Shero said. "We expect him to be even better this year."

Fleury's 40 wins last season ranked third among NHL goaltenders, but his save percentage (.906) and goals-against average (2.83) were far back in the pack. There's much room for improvement. It's time Fleury steps up to the next level. He has been in the league long enough.

Fleury could have taken the Penguins' offer this summer and the security that went with it, but he chose to gamble he'll play well and get a lot more after the season.

No one is hoping he's right more than Shero and Therrien.

Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com .


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