- Jim Kelley
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The much-anticipated first 10 games of Marc-Andre Fleury's career have come and gone.
The Pittsburgh Penguins goalie barely gave it a thought.
"My focus has always been about staying here, about playing here," said the 18-year-old netminder who's been something of a league sensation to date. "I try to think about being here and helping the team, not about going back."
"Going back" means returning to Cape Breton of the Quebec Major Junior League, where Fleury honed his skills en route to being the first pick in the 2003 draft.
To understand Fleury's mind set, first understand a little bit of the National Hockey League's collective bargaining agreement. According to the CBA, if an 18- or 19-year-old player does not play in at least 10 NHL games in the first season under the contract, the term of the contract shall be extended for a period of one year.
According to an agreement with the Canadian Hockey League, an 18- or 19-year-old who is not kept in the NHL must be returned his major junior team even if he has played in 10 NHL games. Once returned, he can be recalled only on an emergency basis or after the major junior season has concluded.
The clause and the agreement were designed to prevent NHL teams from placing their drafted major junior players with their own minor league affiliates to develop, in effect strip mining major junior leagues of their top players.
Five other major junior eligible players who were drafted in 2003 have already reached the 10-game mark -- Carolina's Eric Staal (No. 2 pick), Florida's Nathan Horton (No. 3) Los Angeles' Dustin Brown (No. 13), Boston's Patrice Bergeron (No. 45) and Columbus' Dan Fritsche (No. 46).
By playing Fleury in 10 games this season (his 10th being a mop-up appearance in the third period of a horribly one-sided loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning last Saturday), the Penguins have started the clock on his three-year, $3.72 million contract, the maximum base salary for a player drafted in 2003. As a result, Fleury is eligible to receive a bonus of $400,000 if he reaches any one of the following thresholds: 20 wins; a 3.25 goals-against average; an .890 save percentage; 1,800 minutes; four shutouts over the term of the contract; and a top-three finish in Calder Trophy balloting this season. If he hits any two of the incentives this season, three in the second year and four in the third year, he'll receive a $4 million bonus each season.
Had they returned Fleury to Cape Breton before the 10-game mark, the Penguins would have gotten another free year of development (aside from a signing bonus), during which Fleury would be paid his junior hockey stipend, and they wouldn't have to worry about the duration of his waiver exemption should they eventually assign him to the minors after his junior eligibility has expired.
That might not seem like a big deal, but to a lot of teams, especially cash-strapped ones, that time spent developing players on someone else's dime is valuable. Keeping that time against the waiver wire is also beneficial in that it allows teams to continue developing a prospect in their minor-league system while retaining the right to recall and reassign him without having to expose him to a waiver claim by another team.
When you look at it in from that point of view, 10 games hardly seems like enough time to make such a weighty decision. The Penguins, however, didn't blink.
Heading into tonight's game against the Rangers in Madison Square Garden, Fleury is not only still on their roster, but coach Ed Olczyk said he'll start. And though they still could return him to junior at any time, he appears to be more a part of this Penguins team than anyone might have imagined. Given his performance to date, it now appears to make more sense to try and continue his development at the NHL level where he can clearly win games despite his tender age.
It was his ability to do that even with a struggling Penguins' team that made the decision easier.
In his 10 appearances to date, Fleury is 3-4-2 with a very respectable goals-against average of 2.58, but those numbers don't tell the entire story.
His save percentage is a stunning .927, a figure that ranks him ninth in the league, ahead of some "name" netminders as Dan Cloutier (Vancouver, 10th), Chris Osgood (St. Louis, 14th), Patrick Lalime (Ottawa, 15th), Nikolai Khabibulin (Tampa Bay, 17th), Jose Theodore (Montreal, 21st) and up-and-coming new stars like Pasi Nurminen (Atlanta, 18th) and Rick DiPietro (Islanders, 22nd).
More importantly, he keeps the Penguins in games. Despite being badly outshot every time out, Fleury has never failed to make his team competitive. He has never been less than a third star in any start, home or away, and he already has a shutout on his resume.
In his nine starts, Fleury has faced an average of 36 shots; twice already he's seen totals of 45 or more.
Welcome to the NHL, kid.
"I don't really mind it (the high shot count) as long as I can keep the team in the game," Fleury said with the diplomatic aplomb of someone twice his age. "I don't mind how many shots, just the ones that go in."
So very few have that Fleury already earned NHL rookie of the month for October and is drawing comparisons to another 18-year-old goalie who jumped right to the NHL, Tom Barrasso.
Barrasso was drafted by Buffalo fifth overall in 1983 out of Acton-Boxboro High School in Massachusetts and was an immediate impact player in the NHL. He won the Calder and Vezina Trophies en route to being named to the All-Rookie team and the NHL's first all-star team playing for a team that had more than a casual understanding of overall team defense.
Ironically, Barrasso was later traded to Pittsburgh where he won two Stanley Cup championships with Mario Lemieux in the early 1990s.
Fleury may be drawing Barrasso-like comparisons in terms of performance, but he has patterned himself after two of his childhood heroes growing up in Quebec -- Patrick Roy and Martin Brodeur. He is also being treated as just another teammate by players and just another developing player (albeit a good one) by Olczyk and general manger Craig Patrick.
"There was no special strategy," Patrick said in regards Fleury making the jump from junior to the NHL. "(From the beginning) we were trying to get him to play see how well he does, and that's been our strategy from Day One. We just wanted to see how he would do and we're still in that mode, just seeing how things are going."
"I hadn't intended on playing him so much," said Olczyk, "but he did well and he certainly didn't seemed bothered by the work. We'll just see how it goes."
Those carefully-crafted assessments would lead one to believe that Patrick and Olczyk could still determine that Fleury should be returned to junior at some point -- especially if things continue to go badly for the Penguins. But reaching the 10-game limit is still a meaningful accomplishment.
Allowing him to get his own apartment is another.
Fleury said it was his idea and he approached Patrick with the request. The club had toyed with the idea of placing him with a family as a kind of mid-step in his development, but Fleury wanted to try living on his own.
"It's something I haven't done before and I wanted to try it," he said. "It's an apartment and it's close to the rink and some other guys live there, so it's not like it's a real big deal. Most of the stuff is rented anyway."
There may come a time when Fleury will have to return all of it, but for now, it's not in his or the Penguins' immediate plan.
Jim Kelley is the NHL writer for ESPN.com. Submit questions or comments to his mail bag.