This picture sorta summarizes the first month of Penguins season, no? Some thoughts on the controversy that just won't die:
"Marc(-Andre Fleury) has been a big-time goaltender and has got to be a big-time goaltender. He's got to find that." - Disco Dan Bylsma, on his struggling goalie who was pulled in a 4-3 win over Phoenix on Saturday night
I'm a Fleury fan; that's been pretty well documented on this site in the past. I believe (and hope) that the guy's going to get things turned around soon. But I think the Fleury-Brent Johnson debate that's evolved over the first month of the season is a question that has no right answer at the moment.
What you're really seeing here is a classic battle of short-term thinking vs. long-term thinking that goes beyond just hockey and can be applied to nearly any business. On one hand, it's important that the Penguins win games on a regular basis, but on the other hand, it's also important that they get a goalie they're very heavily invested in back on track. Balancing the two, while keeping the locker room, the GM, and the owners happy is not an easy task, which is what Coach Disco is experiencing daily. And I'm not even going to get into the court of public opinion weighing in on playing time. That should have no bearing whatsoever on Bylsma's decision making.
Do you sit Fleury...do you play Johnson...do you play Fleury...do you sit Johnson...it's been the dominant storyline of this team in 2010-11 thus far, and unfortunately the correct response is not something that can be looked up in your Franchise Goaltender Manual. Nonetheless, the fact remains that right now, this dilemma comes down to two people, as long as Johnson continues to play well: Fleury and Bylsma. That may change down the road if MAF's poor play continues, but for the moment, it's those two.
Bylsma's coached Fleury for a few years now; he knows his routines, and has seen the down-times before. He sees how Fleury practices, he sees his daily demeanor. He is the most qualified person to make a decision on when to play Fleury and when to sit him. Apparently Bylsma felt he erred in his decision on Saturday night, because Fleury's time in Phoenix was rather short, just further proving my point: Bylsma is the guy who makes the call, and even he's getting it wrong from time to time.
I can't tell you exactly what's wrong with Marc-Andre Fleury. I can't climb inside his head and figure out why he gives up some of the goals he gives up. I heard a caller recently tell Seibel & Starkey that they don't think Fleury "has what it takes between the ears", a comment I thought was ludicrous. Fleury's been down before, and I'm sure he'll be down again. So goes the career path of #29. He has highs, he has lows, he always keeps things interesting. He wins Stanley Cups, he gets benched. So goes the life of a goaltender.
I don't think Fleury's the next Steve Blass, as was suggested by a reader of the PG to Dave Molinari, and I don't know how you can make that call after one month. I believe - as do the Penguins - that Fleury will fight his way out of it. And if he doesn't, that's probably not a person they want to entrust with their last line of defense any longer.
That's not a scenario that anybody wants to see happen, but like I said, a lot of people have financial and emotional stakes in this team. Bylsma and Ray Shero have to answer to those folks, and as this franchise (and every other franchise in pro sports) has proven in the past, it's a results-driven business. Even the Pirates fire managers and GMs. Ask John Russell or Michel Therrien how things are going these days.
I'm DEFINITELY not saying or suggesting anyone's pushing Bylsma and Shero out the door, which would be insane. I'm just pointing out the harsh reality that every player-evaluation makes up a career resume for those in the coach and GM business. Does Bylsma stick Fleury in for long-range purposes and lose games, which makes him look bad? How does Shero manage the value of Marc-Andre Fleury stock, of which the Penguins own millions of shares? Eventually in cases like these, it comes down to who the decision-makers are still willing to back for their own job security. No one is exempt from being evaluated, not even the evaluators.
As I said, there is no right answer at the moment, and these are hard, hard questions. But watching it play out has proven to be one of the most entertaining storylines in the 2010 Pittsburgh sports scene. You can't script this kind of drama outside of cursing out a caterer or taking some regrettable cell-phone pictures, and let's keep our fingers crossed that doesn't happen anytime soon.