Should he stay or go?

Penguins must decide whether to keep Fleury

Posted: Wednesday, December 03, 2003

PITTSBURGH By next week, Pittsburgh Penguins rookie goalie Marc-Andre Fleury could be a man with two teams.

One would love to have him. The other isn't certain it can afford him.

The more the NHL's No. 1 draft pick plays, the more he makes. Once he's played at least one period in 25 games, $3 million in contract bonuses kick in. That's a large price for the cash-poor Penguins to pay for what essentially amounts to a season's worth of on-the-job training.

That's why the Penguins are weighing whether to allow Fleury to join the Canadian junior team for the Dec. 26-Jan. 5 world championships in Finland. The Penguins have until Dec. 11 to make up their minds.

''We have to make tough decisions along the way,'' team president Ken Sawyer said. ''I don't know if Fleury's going to spend the rest of the season here or go back to juniors. We haven't made that decision yet. But, in part, it will be a financial issue.''

Fleury has been anything but a disappointment to the Penguins despite a recent six-game losing streak. His statistics (.912 save percentage, 3.08 goals-against average) are excellent for a 19-year-old who labors behind an inexperienced and often leaky defense. His four victories are as many as Stanley Cup MVP Jean-Sebastien Giguere has for Anaheim.

If they let Fleury go to the Canadian juniors, the Penguins would have nearly a month to decide if he should rejoin them or return to his junior team in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, for the rest of the season.

Playing in the same championships he starred in last season would allow Fleury to play in a competitive environment, away from the pressures of a league where the talent-thin Penguins are overmatched almost nightly. Fleury has faced a league-high average of 32 shots per game.

But Fleury has strongly stated a preference to stay in the NHL and develop his game against most of the world's top players. He told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette he would be even willing to forgo the $3 million in bonuses.

''I love it here,'' Fleury said. ''At first, I wasn't sure if I could make the team. Now I'm playing, and I'm really happy with all of this.''

The Penguins no doubt appreciate his gesture, even though such an in-season contract renegotiating is virtually unprecedented for a rookie. Also, the NHL Players Association would likely oppose such a move because it could affect future negotiations with high draft choices.

So, amid all their other troubles, the Penguins must decide whether to pay Fleury or play him elsewhere. The team projects losses of $5 million this season, not including Fleury's possible bonuses.

If they send him back to the wearying road trips of junior hockey, the Penguins risk alienating the player they intend to build their franchise around. But Sawyer said Fleury will make a lot of money during his three-year contract even if he doesn't immediately collect on his incentives; his salary, even without any bonuses, is $1.24 million.

''We know he's going to be a great goaltender for us for a long, long time,'' Sawyer said. ''I would expect he would understand what our situation is here right now.''

Fleury does, but he's also grown to like playing in the NHL, and he is uncertain how leaving the team would make him a better goalie. tender. If he goes back to Cape Breton, he can return to the Penguins this season only in an emergency.

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