Penguins send Fleury to minors to experience playoffs

Updated: April 18, 2006, 7:41 PM ET
Associated Press

PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Penguins will send their former No. 1 draft pick back to the minors on Wednesday, and it has nothing to do with the quality of his play or their latest last-place finish.

Pittsburgh Penguins

49 13.0 27.0 0.0 .897 3.28

And, no, it is not Sidney Crosby.

NHL teams rarely make their starting goalies go down to the minors when the season ends, but the Penguins will do that by sending Marc-Andre Fleury -- the No. 1 pick in the 2003 draft -- to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton for the team's first AHL playoff game Thursday night.

Fleury, 21, has been the Penguins' primary starter in goal since Jocelyn Thibault was injured early in the season and played in 49 NHL games this season. While his statistics don't look all that good -- he is No. 39 in the league in goals-against average (3.28) and No. 31 in save percentage (.897) -- the Penguins don't think they reflect how much he has improved.

Despite playing for a team that lost its first nine games and was never in contention after that, Fleury has made steady and discernible progress. Playing nearly every game after the Olympics break against contenders, he went 6-6-1 in his last 13 starts, winning his final two. He allowed three goals or fewer in nine games, even though the Penguins were one of the NHL's worst defensive teams all season.

"We were supposed to be a very good team, and in the playoffs and everything, so it's been a little bit tough to be losing," Fleury said. "But I think we got better as a team. We have played teams that are in the playoffs and are doing pretty well, so I think that is a good thing."

He has not yet reached the level of a Martin Brodeur or Patrick Roy, but he's much better than the raw 18-year-old who was the Penguins' starter early in the 2003-04 season. The most telling evidence: in a recent five-game stretch against top-tier teams, he stopped 145 of 155 shots.

"It's been not all bad," Fleury said. "The main thing is I had a chance to play a lot of games. It was good to be here almost all year. Because I'm still young and I've been able to play a lot, it was good experience for me."

What the Penguins want him to experience now is the playoffs -- something they haven't been involved in themselves since 2001. One reason is because Fleury has not played at a level expected of a No. 1 pick in prior tournament play.

In 2004, his own clearing pass banked off a teammate's back and into the net to help the United States upset Canada in the world junior championships gold-medal game. That year, after playing 21 games in the NHL, he had only a 1-3 record as his Quebec major junior team was upset in the first round of its playoffs.

A year ago, he was benched in the AHL playoffs after going 0-2 with a 4.36 goals-against average. He has been told he will play this spring, even though Wilkes-Barre's Danny Sabourin was arguably the league's best goalie during the season.

"I think it's too early to be finished playing hockey," Fleury said before the Penguins ended their season Tuesday night in Toronto. "I have a chance to go play for a good team, and I think going into the playoffs will be fun. Hopefully, it will be good and hopefully we will be able to win lots of games."

The Penguins want him to go down and experience the playoffs again, coach Michel Therrien said, "Because he is still developing as a player."

Only now he doesn't need as much polishing as before.

"It's been tough because we lost, but I thought this year was good for me," Fleury said. "I had a couple of bad games, but maybe less than I used to, last year or the year before. Maybe I've been more consistent and had more better games, and that was good."

Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press