The End of an Era, and a New Dawn
The Pittsburgh Penguins are Stanley Cup champions. Again
For the first time since the late 90's, an NHL team has gone back to back. Last year I wrote that the Penguins had as good a chance as any to repeat due to the lack of turnover on the roster. General Manager Jim Rutherford once again tweaked his roster in minor, but not insignificant ways, and Mike Sullivan was able to guide a severely battered roster to the top of the hockey World for the second time in as many seasons. Last year the Penguins only major loss was the departure of defenseman Ben Lovejoy. Pittsburgh was able to return a near identical roster to the 2015-16 championship team. They will not be afforded that same luxury during the Summer to come. Veteran defenders Ron Hainsey, Trevor Daley, and Mark Streit will all hit the open market- none of whom are expected to return next season. Center Nick Bonino, as well as longtime friend and shotgun rider of Sidney Crosby, Chris Kunitz are also slated to test the open market, although it's not inconceivable that either or both may yet return to the Black and Gold. Pittsburgh will also have to decide what to do with Justin Schultz and Conor Sheary, who enjoyed by far the finest seasons of their careers and will no doubt fetch a handsome sum as restricted free agents. Beyond that, Brian Dumoulin will require a new deal which will no doubt include a raise as he is arguably Pittsburgh's best defensive defender not called Letang.
It will be a Summer of change in the Steel city, and none will be greater so than the end of the of the tenure of one of Pittsburgh's most popular players- goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury.
Since being selected 1st overall in the 2003 NHL entry draft, Fleury has defended the crease to polarising effect in the Steel city. Renowned for his remarkable athleticism, he is also (somewhat unfairly) on record as a guy who can't handle the pressure of the playoffs. Despite his playoff struggles earlier in the decade, Marc-Andre Fleury is a Stanley Cup winning goaltender- it's not hard to see why.
For fourteen years, the man they call the Flower tended twine for the Black and Gold. His aesthetically pleasing stops brought fans to their feet time and time again.
He also brought the Penguins to the top- making a ridiculous stop on Nik "The Perfect Human Being" Lidstrom to preserve Pittsburgh's lead late in the third period. That save would go down in Penguins history as the defining moment in game 7, where the Penguins won their third Stanley Cup.
Fleury's remarkable 'tending lead him to overtake the reigns of Pittsburgh's all time best goaltender from Tom Barrasso. The French-Canadian stopper is currently the Penguins all time leader in games played by a goaltender, wins, minutes by a goaltender, shutouts, among other things. He was named rookie of the month in October 2003, has been voted team MVP (2011), and is a three time Stanley Cup champion.
Certainly, the Flower is as good as advertised.
Pittsburgh is not known to have a particularly deep farm system, but they do have a wealth of goaltending prospects. 2013 second rounder Tristan Jarry, 2012 fourth rounder Sean Maguire, as well as highly regarded 2016 second rounder Filip Gustavsson are all toiling away in the minors, waiting for their chance in the show.
And then there's the young tender we all know very well, former 3rd round choice Matt Murray.
Matt Murray burst onto the NHL scene last year after torching the American league the previous campaign. Following a concussion to Pittsburgh's starting 'tender, Murray stopped pucks at a ridiculous pace leading up to the 2015-16 playoffs. Fleury's bothersome concussion gave way to PCS (post concussion syndrome), a serious ailment that could have long lasting or even permanent effects on its host. The rookie would have to go in alone.
Not only did the young Murray hold down the fort in the absence of his fellow stopper, he excelled- leading the Pittsburgh Penguins back to the promised land, capturing the franchise's fourth Stanley cup championship, while securing Conn Smythe MVP votes along the way. Ultimately the honour of MVP would be awarded for Captain Sidney Crosby, but nevertheless the rookie goalie did more than impress during the 2016-17 playoff run.
Murray's dominance lead him to maintain his role as the team's new number one keeper, displacing the beloved Fleury. When expansion was announced, it became immediately clear that Pittsburgh would have to choose who would play between the pipes for the defending champions. The choice was, and still is, obvious- it's Matt Murray's net now.
In February, just prior to the deadline- Jim Rutherford pulled Fleury aside to ask him about waiving his "no-movement" clause. Fleury, perhaps the game's premier team player, agreed. The Penguins could have traded him then, but opted instead to retain his services as a high level insurance policy in the event that Murray went down.
Their gamble would pay off, when Murray was injured during the pre-game warmups early in the post-season. It would be up to the venerable Marc-Andre Fleury to lead Pittsburgh to victory in his absence.
And that's what he did.
Fleury performed at his highest level since the 2009 championship run. The Washington Capitals badly outplayed the Penguins, but Fleury's dominance helped the team surpass their hated rivals yet again.
During the Eastern Conference final, Fleury was chased from the net after a tough night in Ottawa. Matt Murray returned to the crease, and returned to form almost immediately.
Murray was able to finish what Fleury started, and bring him Pittsburgh's fifth (!!) championship title, and go back-to-back for the first time in the salary cap era. Marc-Andre Fleury was phenomenal. Matt Murray was ridiculous. And because of both, Pittsburgh made history against all odds.
The Classiest of the classy, Marc-Andre Fleury "passed the torch" to his understudy- a touching tribute to a job well done by both keepers.
What a moment.
As the sun sets on Marc-Andre Fleury's career in Pittsburgh, the veteran will allow himself to be selected in the expansion draft where he will potentially become the first goalie in the history of the Las Vegas Golden Knights franchise. If selected, he will spare Pittsburgh having to part ways with another player (for example, Bryan Rust) who would otherwise be eligible for selection, as well as clear significant cap space to allow for Jim Rutherford to re-sign some of his current players, or replace the departing ones. This will be his final gift to the franchise he loves so much.
Matt Murray will look to secure his rising star, and the lead the Penguins to further glory in the absence of his mentor, his confidante, and his friend. Murray is mature beyond his years, and will look to apply the same level of veteran composure with Tristan Jarry next season- a skill he has learned from the best in the sport. The truly genuine character of the Flower simply refuses to wilt, even now at the end.
From all Pittsburgh fans, Marc-Andre Fleury- thank you- for everything.
The era of the Flower in Pittsburgh is coming to an end, but the time of Matthew Murray is about to begin.
Thanks for reading!