What is the right decision when it comes to keeping an 18-year-old goalie on your NHL roster?
I was personally involved in a decision like this back in 1988-89 when Mike Keenan took over the Blackhawks from Bob Murdoch. I went from having a veteran goalie partner in Bob Mason to a 19-year-old first-round pick in Jimmy Waite. I went from being the young guy to the old man at the age of 24, in my second full NHL season. I much preferred being the young guy.
The Pittsburgh Penguins traded up at the draft and chose their future, goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. They signed him to a huge entry-level contract that could pay up to $15 million for the three years. It was the right thing to do. I'll tell you now why it is the prudent play to keep him in Pittsburgh, play him as much as you can against the right teams and use common sense along the way to make sure he doesn't end up like Jimmy Waite did with us in Chicago.
Here's what you have to do:
1. Identify his personality: What is his maturity level? Is he outgoing? Is he introverted and shy? Is he confident or full of himself?
I just got off the phone with Penguins head coach Ed Olczyk, who was once an 18-year-old who played for his hometown Chicago Blackhawks after being the third overall pick in the draft. He tells me Fleury is "as mature and ability-ready as any 18-year-old out there. He has been the best goalie since the first day of camp."
This kid played three full seasons in the QHL as well as leading Canada to a silver medal at the world championships, where he was named the MVP goalie. He played a total of 131 games the past two seasons. When you play goal in the province of Quebec, there is constant scrutiny and pressure.
He always appears sharp and focused. And when you see him, he exudes confidence and a certain bit of " I know where I am heading." He is upbeat and, at the same time, seems grounded. It appears he wants to take blame when he should instead of ducking responsibility and offering a lame excuse for a bad goal against. His teammates like him. They WANT to play for him, just like the Oilers wanted to play for Grant Fuhr and the Canadiens wanted to play for a young Patrick Roy.
If Fleury was full of himself, it would take two weeks for the guys to "pull the chute on him." That is not the case, and I guarantee it never will be with Fleury. When I was with Waite, he was constantly late for morning stretches, liked to sleep and didn't give out any signals in practice like he wanted to dominate. He didn't work as hard as he could or should have in the early days. Fleury works his tail off in practice.
Fleury also had to make an adult decision and walk away from Mario Lemieux's house in order to force the issue and get the contract they were after. Walk out of the owner's house? Mario's domain? He knew what he was doing no matter how hard it may have seemed at the time, and now he's getting settled into his own place. He'll show great maturity and common sense if he hires a personal chef to take care of the single-guy, empty-fridge thing.
2. Foundation of support: Is there a language problem? Can he handle a decent-sized U.S. city ? What veterans are with him?
There was a problem with language when I was with Waite. He had a difficult time getting information on the ice, and in the end, he didn't really have many support people around him. We were also a team that had mostly married players and the majority had kids, so a young player like Waite was alone a lot. In Pittsburgh, Fleury has a bunch of young, single teammates to hang out with, whether they go to the movies or have dinner. That makes an enormous difference.
He also has a pretty solid grasp of the English language. Plus, the folks in Pittsburgh love the young prospects who come out of La Belle Province. Another thing about Pittsburgh is its size, or lack of size. It's not Chicago, New York or L.A. He can't hide in Pittsburgh, and he can't just get lost and do his thing thinking no one knows. He is accountable because people will know him, and that is a good thing for Fleury at the beginning of his career.
You want support? How about the big fella? Mario has made his home in Pittsburgh, knows what it is like and knows everyone if Fleury needs anything. Mario has mastered the language, treats people the right way and will be able to identify mood swings, lack of confidence and fatigue issues, if there are any. For the Penguins, looking out for their investment, it doesn't get any better.
3. Team issues: There are team demands and expectations ranging from leading the team, to the pressure to win, to performing at a high level, to media scrutiny.
I know from talking to Olzcyk that there are high demands inside the locker rroom. The Penguins expect to win games and make the playoffs, no matter what everyone else around the NHL may think. Being in a building phase with young players and prospects in the lineup helps Fleury's development.
The critics who say he should be sent down so they won't "ruin" him aren't really in touch with the situation inside the Penguins' room. They are not "ruining" him. They are "developing" him at the best level in the world. Sending him back to the QHL, where he has already played three full, successful seasons, may be a step back in his development.
Olzcyk has already made a few very wise choices when it comes to playing Fleury and not putting him in a bad spot. Edzo took a lot of heat in Montreal for not playing Fleury in his first game there. What he did was watch and learn.
The Penguins put him in a position of success, not failure. It's a learning curve. He will get his time to play there. But on this night, he saw how Mario handled the day of media demands, family demands and then performance demands. If Mike Keenan were coaching Fleury, like he did when Waite was with the Hawks, then I would be worried. But I'm not worried about the Penguins' coaching staff.
I believe Marc-Andre Fleury -- based on his maturity level, his desire and motivation to be the best in the game, and his current surroundings -- is in the right place to go forward with his NHL career. He sits down with assistant coach and goalie coach Lorne Molleken after games and watches the goals and the saves. How can you not love a kid who sees a goal he allowed and says to the coach, "I should have had that one. There are no excuses"?
Seems to me this kid gets it more than most. He reminds me a little of a guy named Fuhr and another named Roy. Not bad company to be in.
Darren Pang, a former goaltender with the Chicago Blackhawks, is a hockey analyst for ESPN. His goalie rankings appear every other week in Net Effect.