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Shrinking Violet

“I’m not getting rid of Marc-Andre Fleury.” When Penguins general manager Ray Shero made that emphatic statement last month, he intended to end speculation on the future of the Penguins’ one-time franchise goaltender.

Fleury’s poor play, however, has not exactly placed Shero in a position to be brutally honest about his struggling goaltender.Four consecutive awful playoff performances, combined with the two years and $10 million remaining on his contract, make trading Fleury difficult. His general manager saying anything remotely indicating a level of dissatisfaction with his performance would only paint Shero further into a corner.

Fleury’s recent postseasons have been, in a word, abysmal. His save percentage in the past four playoffs is a shockingly low .884. The team has not been much better since capturing the Stanley Cup in 2009, winning just three playoff series over the past four seasons. But Fleury was responsible for just one of those series wins, in 2010, and the Penguins won the other two only after banishing Fleury to the bench.

“Fleury’s a mess,” said NHL Network’s Barry Melrose right before Fleury was pulled in favor of Tomas Vokoun in the middle of the Pens opening-round series against the Islanders. “He’s doubting himself, he’s not confident. When you see a goaltender that’s confident, he’s big in the net, he’s standing tall, he wants the puck, he can’t get enough shots. Right now, Fleury is shrinking, he’s making himself smaller, he doesn’t want the puck.”

Not being able to put your franchise goaltender between the pipes in the biggest games of the season is not exactly an endorsement, yet Shero made some salient points while defending his $5 million man.

“It’s difficult to replace 40 wins a year,” Shero said. “I can’t replace that. I don’t believe I can go out and get someone like that.”

Indeed, Fleury’s regular-season performances have been stellar, minus a poor start in 2011, and Shero is correct when he says he can’t replace 40 wins a year in net.

But he may not need to.

Tomas Vokoun has one year left on a contract that will pay him $2 million. He played arguably the best hockey of his career this spring and his 2013 regular season numbers (13-4, 2.45 GAA, .919 save percentage and 3 shutouts) were better than his career numbers. But at his age, 37, it’s not reasonable to expect him to win 40 games. He needs help.

The Penguins successfully reduced Fleury’s workload this past season; and with Shero’s keen eye for talent and ability to work the salary cap, there’s no reason they couldn’t get Vokoun the support he’d need to get through the regular season.

Despite what Shero said publicly, finding a back-up goalie to support Vokoun isn’t the issue. Moving Fleury, however, is.

The Vancouver Canucks have tried for years to trade former Vezina Trophy winner Roberto Luongo, to no avail. Poor postseason performance and an albatross of contract (sound familiar?) have made it nearly impossible to find a willing trade partner.

Whether Shero has lost faith in Fleury or not, he wasn’t about to admit it publicly and wash away what little leverage the team has.

Shero’s strong words, however, cannot make Fleury’s postseason struggles disappear, and there are many around the NHL who believe his time in Pittsburgh is limited.

“I don’t think Marc-Andre Fleury can come back next year if they ride Tomas Vokoun all playoffs,” Melrose said after Fleury was pulled in the first round.

ESPN’s Scott Burnside agreed.

“If Marc-Andre Fleury doesn’t come back, and this team goes on to win a Cup or gets to the Stanley Cup final, I don’t see how Marc-Andre Fleury can come back to this team next year,” said Burnside.

While the Penguins obviously didn’t get through the Eastern Conference Finals, it certainly was not the fault of Vokoun.

“I don’t see any future for (Fleury) here unless he somehow gets back in goal and proves he can be the Marc-Andre Fleury of ’08 and ’09,” said Burnside

That didn’t happen, and now the Penguins have $10 million in damaged goods in front of their net.

Despite Shero’s professed faith in Fleury, even he acknowledged the seriousness of his postseason issues.

“(The playoffs) are an area where he needs improvement on,” Shero admitted. “Concentration and belief. Get back to where he was in 2008 and 2009. I believe he can do that.”

Shero didn’t get specific, but he talked generally about improved “focus and concentration” being central to what Fleury needs to do in order to get his game back on track.

Penguins“I believe for the first time he’s really ready to embrace and improve,” Shero said.

“Goals happen, right?” asked former Penguins defenseman and current AHL assistant coach Jim Paek. “It’s all part of the game. The (goalies) with the short-term memories are the ones with the most success, I believe.”

For the Pittsburgh Penguins, Marc-Andre Fleury’s short-term memory has become a long-term problem.

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