Penguins force Fleury to prove himself

Recently, Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford indicated that the club’s starting goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury would enter the 2014-15 season without a contract extension.

Rutherford said it was not an immediate priority to re-sign the 29-year-old netminder, who is heading into the last year of a seven-year, $35 million deal. His agent, Allan Walsh, told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that he had no problem with that, saying the decision was “of no consequence at all.”

But that doesn’t mean that the lack of a new deal won’t be in the back of Fleury’s mind when he enters training camp next month. His friend and former Penguins teammate Brent Johnson can only imagine the impact that situation might have if he were in Fleury’s skates.

“I believe, if that were me, I’d probably take it worse than Marc [has],” Johnson told ESPN.com in a recent telephone conversation. “It could weigh on your mind. I’m not saying it will, but it could.”

The 37-year-old Johnson, who backed up Fleury for three years and knows him about as well as anyone, thinks Fleury will handle it like a true professional. A player Johnson describes as “outgoing” and “affable,” Fleury will likely keep any anxiety or unease he may have about the situation private, Johnson said. You won’t see him spouting off to the media or griping behind closed doors, he said. Fleury will want to make his statement in the crease, instead.

“His character is unbelievable,” said Johnson, who will be working for Comcast SportsNet as an analyst during Washington Capitals games this season. “He’s a guy that wants to do all his talking on the ice. Every team wants a guy like that. He’s a lead-behind-the-scenes type guy.”

Johnson was happy to see his buddy bounce back last season after a well-documented implosion in the spring of 2013, when Fleury gave up 17 goals in five games of the team’s first-round playoff series against the New York Islanders.

Fleury ranked second in the NHL with 39 wins and posted solid numbers, a 2.37 goals-against average and .915 save percentage during the 2013-14 regular season (2.40 GAA and .915 during the playoffs), despite backing a Penguins squad that was pretty banged up for much of the year.

“I think it was very important for him to have a great regular season and to follow up with a decent run in the playoffs, which I think he had,” Johnson said.

As Fleury’s friend and fellow goaltender, Johnson often encouraged his cohort to let the play come to him, and not lose sight of what got him there in the first place.

Johnson saw much more of that steadiness and consistency in Fleury’s game this past season, and he thinks at least a part of that was the addition of new goaltending coach Mike Bales.

Bales was the only holdover from Dan Bylsma’s coaching staff to be retained when Bylsma was fired this past spring.

“He helped him out and settled him down,” Johnson said of Bales. “Which I think he needed.”

Johnson was actually a candidate for Bales' job after retiring following the 2011-12 season. That’s something he would be open to pursuing in the future, and has enjoyed before -- Johnson has made time for coaching local youth hockey in both the D.C. and Pittsburgh areas in the past.

As for now, though, Johnson is excited about his gig with CSN, working in television despite the requisite nerves that are part and parcel of the job.

He’ll look forward to employing his NHL experience and insight as an analyst covering the Capitals. And he predicts his former Penguins squad will remain a tough team to beat in the Metropolitan Division.

And though he is relatively unfamiliar with new coach Mike Johnston and his staff, he knows the Penguins’ roster is enough to make them a top team every year.

“You have a team there that has the potential on paper every year to go far in the Stanley Cup playoffs. I don’t think that’s going to change. It’s the small little details throughout the season. I think the big thing in the dressing room is to have character guys,” Johnson said, identifying Pascal Dupuis as one such leader in that category. “I think they missed [him] a ton last year. I don’t know what happened in [the] dressing room at all [last season], but if you’re on a 10-game winning streak and you’re not having fun winning or it’s just ho-hum at [the] office, you tend to lose the excitement.”