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Madden: Penguins could achieve goals with phenom in net

Wednesday, September 24, 2003

"Take the goalie." -- Mark Madden, Post-Gazette column, June 21, 2003.

So it was written. So it came to pass. Yours truly previously pontificated on these pages that the Penguins would do well to trade up and take goaltending phenom Marc-Andre Fleury with the first choice of the 2003 NHL draft. The Penguins wisely heeded my advice and struck a deal with Florida to get the top pick, using it to select Fleury.

Since I'm calling the shots, witness my latest commandment: Keep the goalie. Put Fleury on the Penguins right now.

OK, so he's only 18. OK, so a bad start could damage his confidence. OK, so he might benefit by spending another year in junior hockey.

But general manager Craig Patrick said if Fleury is one of the top two goalies in camp, he would make the team. He said if Fleury is good enough, he's old enough.

Well, Fleury is the best goalie in camp. In fact, he's the best goalie in a Penguins training camp since Tom Barrasso was in his prime.

I know what great goalies look like. They look exactly like Fleury.

Fleury rarely makes spectacular saves. It's because he doesn't have to. His skating, positioning and anticipation combine to put him almost always in the puck's path without need for a late lunge. When a deflection or bang-bang play necessitates last-second deftness, Fleury is good like that, too. But usually, he makes sports' most pressure-packed position look easy.

I was sitting three rows up and near center ice at Mellon Arena Saturday when a New York Islanders player snapped a shot from the top of the right circle through a screen. Fleury couldn't have seen the shot, because I was right behind the shooter and I couldn't see Fleury. But Fleury calmly stuck out his right pad and not only saved the puck, but also steered it harmlessly to the corner.

Fleury couldn't see the puck but still knew where it was going. You can't teach that.

If Sebastien Caron plays as well as he can, the Penguins might make the playoffs. But if Fleury mines his enormous potential, the Penguins will make the playoffs. Write it down. You heard it here.

Fleury will struggle at times. But his upside is enormous. He appears to be mentally resilient as well as physically skilled.

Coach Eddie Olczyk seems serious about installing a system that includes defensive responsibility. Only in Pittsburgh, by the way, is there legitimate reason to suspect the coach might be joking when he claims that. It would be better to put Fleury back in juniors instead of hanging him out to dry every night in the NHL. But if the Penguins even play decent defense, Fleury won't be humbled too often.

The Penguins can keep Fleury to start the season, then send him back to juniors as long as they do so by their 10th game. Giving the kid a test drive has little risk and the potential of great reward.

Money is a concern. The NHL's rookie salary cap guarantees Fleury would get a three-year deal worth $1.24 million per year. Based on the contract of last year's No. 1 overall pick, Rick Nash of Columbus, Fleury's incentive bonuses could theoretically hike his pay up to $4 million per year.

That's a lot of cash by Penguins standards. But when a forward like Nash reaches his bonuses, all it really guarantees is good statistics for him. Goalies directly affect winning or losing.

If Fleury's bonuses are structured wisely and he reaches the most optimistic perimeters of his deal, the Penguins would almost certainly make the playoffs and Fleury's performance would pay for itself.

Most of those involved in the decision-making process are in favor of keeping Fleury. Scout Gilles Meloche, a former NHL goaltender, is seemingly the only one dead set against it. Olczyk reportedly wants to keep Fleury and Patrick is leaning the same way.

As for owner/captain Mario Lemieux, getting stoned silly by Fleury during a recent shooting drill is one reason Super Mario apparently feels Fleury might be worth a chunk of his fortune tout de suite.

If the Penguins don't sign Fleury now, they might save some money. Rookies, being nonunion when they're drafted, tend to take a big hit whenever a new collective bargaining agreement is negotiated these days. NHL owners likely will want a rookie cap that covers salary and bonuses. That figures to be one of the few concessions the NHL Players Association might make without anyone being abducted.

If Fleury doesn't sign within two years, he becomes an unrestricted free agent. Best to quickly remove that temptation. But if Fleury signs now and, as expected, there's a lengthy NHL work stoppage next season, he could be idle at a time when his development could least afford it.

Maybe the Penguins shouldn't use their best goalie this year. If they finish last and get the No. 1 pick again, they get to draft Russian offensive dynamo Alexandre Ovechkin, an absolutely overwhelming talent by all accounts. Tank a season to get a great player? Hey, it turned out well the last time the Penguins did it.

Mark Madden is the host of a sports talk show from 3 to 7 p.m. weekdays on WEAE-AM (1250).

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