Ron Cook: Therrien hopes benching will help Fleury blossom
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Marc-Andre Fleury took it like a man. All of it. The rotten performance against the New York Islanders Monday. The stinging public criticism that followed from Penguins coach Michel Therrien. The embarrassing benching in Florida Thursday night.
Too bad many of the team's fans weren't so mature.
The reaction to Therrien's handling of Fleury was way over the top.
How can the fool coach do that after just one loss?
Why start a goaltending controversy now? This late in the season? When the Penguins are so close to a playoff spot?
What about poor Marc-Andre's psyche?
I know Fleury's nickname isn't the most macho in sports -- "Flower" -- but do you really believe he's that fragile?
If Fleury is, he's not the goaltender you want leading the Penguins into the playoff pressure, anyway.
Now, I'll admit it's unusual for a coach to take on a star player in such a public manner. Most coaches are afraid to call out their athletes for fear of offending them. That goes along with the big-money contracts and the huge investments teams make in their players. It frequently puts coaches in the uncomfortable position of having to smooch their players' behinds, so as to cover their own. If Fleury quits on Therrien, Fleury won't lose his job. Therrien will.
But give Therrien credit, not just for his brass, which is admirable, but for knowing his players, knowing which need stroked and which need kicked in the fanny. He has coached Fleury for a long time, here and with the Penguins' Wilkes-Barre/Scranton farm club. Obviously, he believes Fleury can handle the rough treatment and benefit from it. Obviously, he thinks this is the way to get the most out of him and help him become the team's franchise goaltender for the next 10 or 12 years.
There's no doubt Therrien's criticism of Fleury was calculated.
Everything Therrien does is calculated.
Remember his infamous blowup after a loss to Edmonton last season -- not long after he replaced fired Eddie Olczyk -- when he called out the team in general and the defense in particular? "That defensive squad, I'm really starting to believe their goal is to be the worst defensive squad in the league ... I've never seen a bunch of defensemen soft like this."
The players didn't like it, but they responded to it.
The Penguins didn't make the playoffs last season, but they were a better team after Therrien's meltdown.
The coach's only regret?
Not doing it sooner.
"I thought about doing that for more than a week," he has said.
The same premeditation went into the Fleury episode. After the Penguins' 6-5 loss to the Islanders ended their 14-0-2 run, Therrien said, "Fleury was not good. This is four games in a row that he's given up way too many goals." Therrien not only didn't back down from those comments two days later after his emotions settled, he announced that backup goaltender Jocelyn Thibault would start against the Florida Panthers. Thibault made the coach look like a genius by playing well in a 2-1 overtime win.
This served a couple of valuable purposes.
One, it helped to get Thibault ready -- mentally and physically -- for the stretch run. The Penguins will play 17 games in March, including four sets of games on consecutive nights. They will need both goaltenders.
Two, it served as a healthy slap in the face for Fleury. The kid is just 22 and had extraordinary success most of the season. If that made him just a bit complacent, well, that wouldn't be all that shocking.
You might say Therrien welcomed Fleury back to reality.
It's easy to forget Therrien did much the same thing with Fleury in training camp. Fleury arrived as the Penguins' clear No. 1 goalie but did not play well early. Therrien went public to make it known he was considering starting Thibault, keeping Dany Sabourin on the roster and sending Fleury to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. Fleury responded by playing well late in camp, winning the starting job and leading the Penguins to a 7-3 start. He continued to play well until just a week or two ago and might have been the team's Most Valuable Player, no disrespect to the great Sidney Crosby.
Don't be surprised if Fleury reacts the same way this time.
Therrien is a lot smarter than he seems.
First Published February 25, 2007 12:00 am