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Penguins Penguins swing trade with Florida to net top spot, Fleury

Sunday, June 22, 2003

By Dave Molinari, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Marc-Andre Fleury became a goalie when he was 6 years old because he liked the equipment and loved to flop around the ice.

Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, 18, should be a good fit for the rebuilding Penguins. (Ryan Remiorz, Associated Press)

He became Penguins property yesterday because team officials were convinced no 18-year-old on the planet is better at stopping pucks.

And because they feel that maybe, just maybe, no junior goalie during the past decade has done it as well as Fleury.

"He's got everything," said Gilles Meloche, the team's Quebec scout and goaltending coach.

That a Penguins official would speak of Fleury in such flattering terms isn't surprising because the franchise just committed a big piece of its future to him.

But it is not just Penguins scouts and front-office people who spray superlatives when discussing Fleury. Consider the assessment of Detroit scout Bruce Haralson.

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"He's technically flawless," Haralson said. "His movement laterally is outstanding. He has a great glove hand. He's very cool under pressure.

"He follows the puck probably as well as any goaltender I've seen in the last 10 years in the draft. Trying to compare him to other goaltenders is difficult, because he probably has more ability than most kids I've seen in junior."

The Penguins, who had been scheduled to select third in the first round, were able to claim Fleury by working out a trade with Florida, which held the No. 1 choice.

The Penguins acquired that pick, along with the 73rd overall, from the Panthers for their first-round choice, the later of their two second-rounders and right winger Mikael Samuelsson.

Because Florida was reluctant to part with the top choice unless it got a high one in return, the trade that made Fleury a Penguins player will go down as one of the few positive byproducts of their miserable 2002-03 season.

"We were very fortunate to be in the third position, because Florida wanted to make sure they got a good pick out of the draft," General Manager Craig Patrick said. "And they did."

The Penguins, meanwhile, got the first player in the draft for just the second time. The first, Mario Lemieux, has fared reasonably well in the NHL and placed a congratulatory phone call to Fleury after he was drafted.

Their conversation was brief, and Fleury acknowledged that he and Lemieux are not on a first-name basis. Not yet, anyway.

"I don't know him personally," Fleury said. "But I know he's a great guy and an awesome hockey player."

In a prepared statement, Lemieux said Fleury "has a chance to be a franchise goaltender" and described his acquisition as "another important piece in our rebuilding process."

Fleury never has been to Pittsburgh and has limited knowledge of the organization. The Penguins, though, know plenty about him.

About his blue-collar roots -- he is the son of a carpenter in Sorel, Quebec -- and knack for elevating his level of play as the stakes go up. About his upbeat attitude and ability to put bad goals and games behind him.

"He keeps his composure," Meloche said.

Patrick was adamant that Fleury's off-ice nature was not a factor in the decision to draft him -- "He has a great personality, but we base our decisions on skill, and we think he's a tremendous, tremendous goalie" -- but Fleury's mental makeup is a significant part of his repertoire.

It has helped him to survive three years in a row on a weak team with Cape Breton in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and could serve him well when he tries to earn a job with the Penguins at training camp this fall.

"It's going to help me to not [feel] too much pressure," Fleury said.

He added that, "my goal is to stay in the NHL. That's always been my dream. I will do my best to do it."

Although Patrick did not rule out Fleury's stepping into the NHL immediately -- "He'll come to camp and, if he wins the job, he'll play in Pittsburgh. But we'll see" -- the perils of fast-tracking him into the pros appear to outweigh the benefits of having him on the big-league roster this fall.

"We don't want to rush him," Meloche said. "It depends what happens at camp, but I don't think we're ready for [to contend for] a Stanley Cup next year."

Haralson was even more forceful, projecting that Fleury "is three years away" from being an impact player in the NHL, and that his long-range prospects could be damaged if he reaches the league prematurely.

"You worry about confidence," Haralson said. "If the kid loses his confidence, it's very difficult to regain. On a really good team, you might be all right. But, if you put him on a team that, say, defensively is not great, you're subjecting him to some problems."

Fleury knows something about that, because he has played on poor teams in Cape Breton the past three seasons. And while his 2002-03 numbers with the Screaming Eagles -- a 17-24-6 record, 3.16 goals-against average and .910 save percentage -- were nothing special, the ones he put up while leading Canada to the silver medal at the world junior championships were: He went 4-1, with a 1.28 goals-against average and .957 save percentage.

"Under pressure, he showed that he could play," Meloche said. "In the biggest tournament, he was the best player."

Fleury, who is 6 feet 1 1/2, 172 pounds, cited Patrick Roy and Martin Brodeur as the major influences on him, and his playing style is a hybrid of theirs. He tends to rely mostly on the butterfly techniques popularized by Roy, but incorporates athleticism in much the same way Brodeur does.

He does not, however, handle the puck nearly as well as Brodeur, and that might be the most glaring soft spot in his game.

"He'll stop it, but he doesn't move it as well as Brodeur does," Meloche said. "But he's got enough ability to improve in that."

Enough ability that Mark Kelley, the Penguins' European scout, was moved to say that, "in my 14 years on this job, this is the best goaltender I've seen coming out of juniors."

The list features dozens, if not hundreds, including Jean-Sebastien Giguere, MVP of the recently concluded Stanley Cup playoffs. Haralson was with Hartford when the Whalers drafted Giguere, and believes Fleury is light-years ahead at this stage of his career.

"He's a lot more fluid than Giguere was," Haralson said. "Giguere was a good young goaltender -- you could see the talent -- but this kid is probably head-and-shoulders above him, in terms of athletic ability at this age."

Fleury is just the third goalie the Penguins have taken in the first round -- Gordie Laxton and Craig Hillier were the others -- and could develop into a cornerstone of the franchise.

"We're in a rebuilding mode -- we've made that pretty clear -- and we decided the best place to start building was in goal," Patrick said.

There are no guarantees with 18-year-olds, and goaltenders are notoriously difficult to project, but no one seems to question that Fleury will mature into an effective NHL goalie And Haralson is among the many who believe he could become much more.

"If you bring him along smart," he said, "one day you might have ... he could be a Patrick Roy."

Dave Molinari can be reached at 412-263-1144.

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