Hard to blame Dan Bylsma for trying to diffuse the situation.
The fifth-year Pittsburgh Penguins coach did his best to assert to the assembled media Wednesday at Consol Energy Center that the team’s goaltending situation would proceed as it has before.
But while Bylsma said longtime crease incumbent Marc-Andre Fleury would continue to get the majority of the starts in 2013-14 and that the Penguins are lucky to have a great backup in Tomas Vokoun, it’s clear Pittsburgh’s goaltending hierarchy is as unsettled as it’s been since 2006-07.
That was the season Fleury snatched the No. 1 spot from veteran Jocelyn Thibault and made the blue paint his own, eventually helping the Penguins to their first playoff berth of the Sidney Crosby-Evgeni Malkin era. Fleury, now 28, reached his on-ice peak soon after, backstopping Pittsburgh to back-to-back Stanley Cup Final appearances and the franchise’s third NHL crown.
Ever since 2009’s title run, however, Fleury has seen his production in the playoffs drop dramatically from the regular season. He remains a capable goalie from October to March, but he hasn’t exactly met the springtime challenge in the last four years.
That trend reached its nadir last May, when Fleury’s beyond-shaky play forced Bylsma to turn to the 37-year-old Vokoun during a challenging first-round series against the Islanders. Vokoun boosted the Penguins with his poise and competence until the Bruins’ stifling defense cut Pittsburgh’s run short in the Eastern Conference final.
In the wake of all that, and the Penguins’ insistence that Fleury see a sports psychologist in the offseason, it’s not a secret that the franchise goaltender will have a few more scrutinizing eyes on him than usual. The microscope will focus on the Pittsburgh crease starting with Thursday’s first practice and it’ll intensify during any preseason game action Fleury sees.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing for Fleury. He’s shown an ability to respond to pressure in the past, and there’s no doubt the onus will be on Vokoun to prove he can be a viable No. 1 goalie in his 16th NHL season.
Nonetheless, no matter what coaches and management may tell us, the Penguins’ goaltending setup is far from certain.