Penguins reach contract terms with No. 1 pick Fleury

Updated: October 6, 2003, 7:44 PM ET

PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Penguins signed No. 1 draft pick Marc-Andre Fleury to a three-year contract Monday, mostly because even they realized they had no other choice.

Fleury was the Penguins' best goalie during the preseason, but they had only until 3 p.m. Monday to reach terms or he would have been forced to spend the season at Cape Breton of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.

Fleury said the deal beat the deadline by only four minutes.

"I'm very happy," the 18-year-old Fleury said in a telephone interview. "It was getting close to 3 o'clock, so I'm happy everything got done."

Fleury will make $3.72 million over three years -- the NHL rookie maximum deal this year is $1.24 million -- plus incentives that could easily make the contract worth several times that. General manager Craig Patrick said Fleury's incentives are identical to those of the last goalie drafted No. 1, Rick DiPietro by the Islanders in 2000.

That deal called for $400,000 bonuses for 20 wins, a 3.25 goals against average, an .890 save percentage, 1,800 minutes played, four shutouts and a top three finish in the Calder Trophy voting for rookie of the year. There also was a $4 million payment if he reached any four of the six incentives.

"It's more than we wanted (to pay), but I'm glad it's over with and we'll make the best of it," Patrick said. "It's a relief to know we don't have this hanging over us. It's not as bad as it could have been. Some of the contracts the last couple of days helped us to get that point across."

The deal averts a potential public relations disaster for the Penguins, who were under considerable pressure to sign their first No. 1 pick since Mario Lemieux in 1984.

The Penguins cut their payroll after losing $2 million to $3 million last season, and Patrick acknowledged they are in a rebuilding mode for the first time since the mid 1980s. But they came under increased pressure to sign Fleury when it was learned last week that owner-player Lemieux's salary has been doubled to about $10 million, including pay for his off-ice duties.

However, the Penguins' top consideration for signing Fleury was the fact he could become an unrestricted free agent in spring 2005 if a deal wasn't done by then.

"We felt we made a good pick by moving up in the draft to pick him and we didn't want that to slip away," said Patrick, who traded up two spots in June to draft Fleury. "We didn't want to make those good moves and have it disappear. It was important to get him signed."

Fleury could become the Penguins' starting goaltender this season, though it seems more likely he will split time with second-year goalie Sebastien Caron.

New coach Eddie Olczyk hasn't decided how much or how quickly Fleury will play. The Penguins have one of the NHL's youngest -- and, it would seem, least-talented -- teams, so overexposing Fleury as a rookie could be detrimental to his development.

"We'll see as the season goes along," said Olczyk, whose team opens Friday night against Los Angeles. "He's lived up to the hype but I don't want to read too much into what he did in an exhibition schedule when he didn't have to face a full squad."

Fleury played in four of the Penguins' seven exhibition games and had the best goals-against average (2.26) and save percentage (.923) of the three goalies still on their roster. With Fleury signed, goalie Jean-Sebastien Aubin probably will return to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (AHL).

"We'll watch Marc-Andre very carefully and we'll see how he responds," Patrick said. "He seems like a very levelheaded mature young man with a great attitude, and he's got a great style."

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index

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