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Why Pittsburgh loves Marc-Andre Fleury

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Let me start by asking you a question.

What makes your favorite player, your favorite player?

Why do you like them?

Is it the way the play, what they accomplished, a specific moment, something they did off the ice, a personal interaction you had with them? What was it?

There has to be something that drew you to that player.

The reason I bombard you with all of these questions is because on Tuesday night in Pittsburgh Marc-Andre Fleury will be making his first appearance in the city as a visiting player. It is going to be some kind of a wild scene because in the history of the Penguins — heck, in the history of Pittsburgh sports — there are few players that will ever reach the level of popularity that Fleury had among a large portion of the city.

A lot of players — important players, good players — that were a part of Stanley Cup winning teams have returned to Pittsburgh as visitors and received a wide range of receptions. Jaromir Jagr, a legend, spent years being booed every time he touched the puck. Most players get a nice round of applause. Some get standing ovations.

None of them will compare to the one Fleury gets on Tuesday night when the roof will probably blow off the building. There will almost certainly be a non-zero number of people in the stands wearing Penguins jerseys that are actively cheering for a player in the opposing colors to win.

That relationship always fascinated me, and it still does.

Looking at his career as a player objectively there is nothing that really stands out all that much versus any other goalie from his era.

Do not get me wrong, he certainly was not a bad player, and he was always extremely durable. A goalie that could play 65-70 games a year at a — at worst — league average level is a pretty valuable commodity.

But he was never the best — or even second best — player on his own team, and he was never really among the top players in the league at his position.

The league’s general managers never saw fit to vote him higher than seventh for the Vezina Trophy (and only twice voted for him at all). He played in two All-Star games in 13 years and only finished higher than 10th in save percentage once. He had some downright forgettable postseason performances that probably at times made him a detriment to the team’s Stanley Cup chances. Twice he was replaced by other goalies, and while he is a three-time Stanley Cup winner with the Penguins, he wasn’t the goalie in the crease for the clinching game for two of them and didn’t even play a role in the playoffs for one of them.

This isn’t meant to be critical, it’s just facts.

Still, if you were to poll Penguins fans on who their favorite player over the past decade has been a significant portion of them is going to have Marc-Andre Fleury at the top of that list. He is going to get a heroes welcome.

So again, we’re back to the question of why he is so fiercely loved.

A lot of comes from the fact that anyone that has had any significant interaction with him has never had a negative thing to say about him. Hearing his former teammates talk about him and tell stories about him shows how much reverence they have for him as a player and a person.

That carries over to the fan base because they hear things like this from Ian Cole.

How would you not want to root for a player like that?

Even though he is a highly competitive person behind the scenes, on the ice and on camera he always has that same smile on his face and just seems to be genuinely happy to be there, never taking things too seriously. It is easy for fans to root for a person like that. When Fleury was on his way out of Pittsburgh this past summer having been sent to Vegas as part of the expansion draft, Sean Gentille wrote at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that “this would all be easier if he were a jerk. People would be more rational, if nothing else.”

But he was not — and is not — a jerk.

He also is not boring.

His style of play is just … exciting. Not always the most effective, but never boring. A fundamentally sound goalie that always has himself in position to have the puck hit him in the chest isn’t going to appeal to people. It isn’t going to make highlights. Fleury has never been that goalie. He has always relied on freakish athleticism to play the position and has always been capable of making mind-melting saves.

When his career comes to an end he is going to have a lot of great numbers when it comes to wins, championships, saves. It is going to be one of those very good for a very long time careers, instead of one that was dominated by objective greatness over any number of seasons. Or even individual seasons.

But he still had his moments of greatness, and they tended to be HUGE moments.

There was that breakaway save on Alex Ovechkin early in Game 7 of the 2009 playoffs. There was the Stanley Cup clinching save on Nicklas Lidstrom later that spring. The best stretch of play in his career is probably largely forgotten because it didn’t result in a Stanley Cup win, but his performance during the 2007-08 postseason was game-changing, and it would have made him a worthy Conn Smythe contender had the Penguins defeated the Detroit Red Wings that year. As it stands, he was the only reason they won two games in that series against a team that steamrolled them in all six games. With his team facing elimination in a Stanley Cup Final game he stopped 55 shots in a triple-overtime win.

Then there was the 2017 playoffs when he briefly got his job back from Matt Murray and helped propel the team through the first two rounds of the playoffs despite the fact they were probably outplayed by the Columbus Blue Jackets and Washington Capitals.

That stuff sticks with fans, too.

Then there is the hope he provided.

When the Penguins traded up two spots to select Fleury with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2003 NHL draft things were not great for the organization. It was a bad team that had sold off all of its best players for pennies on the dollar, while the future of the team was still very much in doubt.

Fleury was supposed to be the beginning of a new era, and for an entire generation of fans he was the first core building block for what would become a championship level team. He was there before Sidney Crosby. Before Evgeni Malkin. Before Kris Letang. They threw him right into the deep end of the pool, making him their starting goalie on opening night as an 18-year-old, something that is still unheard of today.

He showed up in bright yellow pads and played behind a team that was so unspeakably awful they got outshot by a completely mediocre Kings team (one that missed the playoffs!) by a 48-11 margin on opening night. Fleury, the 18-year-old, stopped 46 of those shots, including a penalty shot. In his next start a week later he stopped 31 shots to beat a Red Wings team that would go on to be one of the best in the league that season for his first career win.

That stands out with fans, the fact he was the beginning of a new era that would probably become the most successful era in franchise history (and from a championship standpoint, it has been).

Was he ever a great player for the Penguins? If we define greatness as being the best on the team or one of the best at his position, the honest answer is no, probably not.

But he was a great person and a great teammate. He was a great ambassador for the team and the league. He provided great hope at a time when there was no hope for the team. He had great moments that led to great success for the team.

That stuff all adds up over 13 years, and sometimes in the eyes of fans it is all worth more than just simply being a great player.

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Predators land another steal in signing Saros, Rinne’s heir apparent

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Nashville Predators GM David Poile hasn’t lost his knack for signing promising young players to outstanding value contracts.

Monday represents the latest coup, as goalie-of-the-future Juuse Saros signed a dirt-cheap deal: three years, just $4.5 million overall (so a $1.5M cap hit). That’s truly fantastic stuff for a goalie whose career save percentage is a superb .923.

Now, obviously, the sample size is small for the 23-year-old. That save percentage was accrued over 48 games, with all but one of those appearances happening during the last two seasons. Still, his numbers are promising at other levels, so there’s some credence to the notion that he could end up being a strong NHL starter.

Considering some of the money being thrown around at backups this summer, the Predators landed a great deal even if Saros doesn’t reach his considerable ceiling.

One would think that this only solidifies the passing of the torch from Pekka Rinne to Saros, but we’ll see. Rinne’s $7M cap hit expires after 2018-19, and at 35, you have to wonder if a decline is looming.

The beauty of getting three years of Saros’ services at such a cheap price is that the Predators aren’t boxed into a corner, though. If they feel most comfortable with a slower transition from Rinne to Saros, possibly morphing into a platoon, that’s an option (especially if, after fattening his bank account, Rinne signs his next deal for a palatable price). There are also some other scenarios: Saros could give the Predators 2-3 years of starter-level work at a cut rate, or Nashville could pivot to a different paradigm in net altogether.

(Honestly, would it be that shocking if Saros ends up being a better goalie than Connor Hellebuyck, for instance?)

Simply put, most – if not all – of the NHL’s other GMs should be jealous of Nashville’s unusual mixture of potential production and flexibility at the goaltending position. Those other GMs should take notes.

[It’s been a great day for Nashville, who also signed Ryan Hartman for cheap.]

Speaking of masterful GM work, this signing swings back to one of Poile’s greatest strengths: locking up promising players to team-friendly deals either before a breakthrough happens or right as it begins.

Consider some of the beautiful contracts he’s put together, leveraging RFA situations and tax-related perks:

  • Again, that Saros salary is sweet, and Rinne’s $7M goes away when Nashville needs to lock down other pieces.
  • Ryan Ellis is about to end a five-year contract that carried an almost comically low $2.5M cap hit. He’ll get paid on his next deal, and deft moves like these make it more feasible for him to stick with the Predators. Ellis is 27, so Nashville landed some of his peak years.
  • Filip Forsberg is a legit game-breaker. The 23-year-old’s cap hit is just $6M through 2021-22 (he’s three years into a six-year contract).
  • Viktor Arvidsson‘s bargain contract is no secret. He’s a top-line, 25-year-old winger making $4.25M per season through 2023-24(!).
  • Nashville boasts two 28-year-old defensemen also on enviable contracts. Roman Josi‘s ridiculous $4M contract ends after 2019-20, a seven-year deal among the best in recent NHL memory. Mattias Ekholm ($3.875M per year, six seasons, ends after 2021-22) is right there with Josi and Ellis as great blueline bargains.
  • Just about anyone can sign a first-rounder to an entry-level contract, but it’s worth noting that Eeli Tolvanen didn’t burn a year off of his rookie deal. If he can live up to the hype, the Predators would get three seasons of his sniping at a ludicrous price.

It almost feels like cheating, right? Most NHL front offices would pop open some champagne if they nabbed two of those steals, let alone the litany of bargains Poile has landed.

Now, sure, there are some expenditures. P.K. Subban absolutely ranks as elite, but $9M isn’t cheap. (He’s worth it, but that isn’t cheap.) Ryan Johansen‘s a little rich at $8M and $6M for Kyle Turris looked a little shakier when he was something of a non-factor during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Even then, it’s not outrageous to picture Johansen and/or Turris delivering at a nice level, especially since those deals will account for less and less of each season’s cap percentage.

Once again, it looks like the Predators knocked one of the park with a signing when it comes to Saros.

For all we know, the conglomeration of smart moves could net the Predators a Stanley Cup, and possibly more than one. That said, a lot can happen, so you never know if all of this promise will come to fruition during the rigors (and thanks to the randomness) of the postseason.

Either way, other GMs could learn a lot from David Poile, as this is a masterwork of team-building.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Henrique’s great fit with Ducks pays off with $29 million extension

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As the New Jersey Devils went through a transition this season, it became clear Adam Henrique’s role had changed, and his production took a hit. A late November trade and a new role with the Anaheim Ducks fueled a turn in the right direction — one that has resulted in a five-year extension for the 28-year-old forward.

The Ducks announced on Monday that Henrique, who still has one year left on his deal, signed on through the 2023-24 NHL season with a total contract value of $29.125 million. The $5.825 million cap hit, per The Athletic’s Josh Cooper, puts him fifth-highest on the team beginning with the 2019-20 season.

(Now that Henrique has signed an extension with the Ducks, per the conditions of the deal New Jersey will receive a 2019 third-round pick from Anaheim.)

In 57 games in Anaheim during the regular season Henrique scored 20 goals and recorded 36 points. He found great chemistry on a line with Nick Ritchie and Ondrej Kase as the trio put up terrific numbers together. The trade was one that filled needs for both sides and both Henrique and Sami Vatanen, who went to New Jersey, immediately found fits in their new locations.

“With us, it puts him back into a more offensive role, which I think he’s going to love,” said Ducks general manager Bob Murray earlier this season. “He’s not old by any means. Sometimes when teams rebuild or reboot, or have this process, maybe it’s time for people to get a change of scenery. It doesn’t mean they’re bad players.”

The work continues for Murray, who has Henrique’s restricted free agent linemates and Brandon Montour to re-sign this summer. Then there are extensions for Jakob Silfverberg and John Gibson, who both have one year left on their current contracts, to figure out. Add all that to the fact that Murray vowed changes after a disappointing playoff exit, plus Ryan Kesler‘s questionable status for next season and a roster re-shaping could be in the plans.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Flames make fascinating bet with Elias Lindholm contract

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The Calgary Flames’ pivotal decision to trade Dougie Hamilton to the Carolina Hurricanes for a package including Elias Lindholm and Noah Hanifin was tough to immediately call. Maybe it makes sense, then, that Lindholm’s contract also seems divisive.

At least the terms of the deal are clear: six years, $29.1 million, which calls for a $4.85M cap hit. That’s official from the Flames, while Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reports that Lindholm isn’t receiving any sort of no-trade/no-movement clauses.

Some criticisms

Whether you love or loathe the terms, it’s clear that the Flames are making a big commitment to Lindholm. If the results are middling, one can bet that people will note that Dougie Hamilton’s cap hit ($5.75M, through 2020-21) doesn’t cost a whole lot more than Lindholm’s new mark. Considering that the Flames still need to sign tough-to-gauge Hanifin to a new deal, the bill for this trade could end up being steep.

For what it’s worth, 55-percent of PHT voters believed that the Hurricanes won the trade, at least on the day it was made.

Despite five seasons already in the NHL (although he was limited to 58 games as a rookie in 2013-14), Lindholm hasn’t yet reached the 20-goal plateau. His career-high so far is 17 goals, while his peak for points so far was 45. He’s falling into a price range with some really nice players, such as Nazem Kadri and Sean Couturier. Looking at the simplest stats, Lindholm seems like a gamble.

And, again, people will beat up on the Flames if Hamilton – and to a lesser extent, Micheal Ferland – go on a tear in Carolina.

With another interesting yet even riskier investment in James Neal, the Flames are really rolling the dice this summer. If those gambles end up looking foolish, Calgary could be stuck for a while. That would bring back unpleasant memories of the albatross deals that hampered the Darryl Sutter era.

The good

At 23, some growth is conceivable, although some might remark that Lindholm probably is what he is after logging 374 regular-season games.

Of course, Lindholm could very well put up impressive numbers if he hits the linemate lottery with Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan. In that scenario, the Flames’ longer commitments would be a blessing rather than a curse, as a shorter deal would have opened up greater risks for Lindholm to excessively inflate his value.

Even a more modest good-cause scenario would be that Lindholm might give the Flames the sort of supporting scoring they’ve desperately needed beyond Gaudreau – Monahan and the possession monster trio of Mikael Backlund, Michael Frolik, and Matthew Tkachuk.

Speaking of possession stats, Lindholm checks out in that area, for the most part. (The Hurricanes hog the puck so much that sometimes it’s easy to take a guy like Lindholm for granted.)

At $4.85M, Lindholm is a fair enough value. The Flames are probably crossing their fingers that such a contract looks like a steal in hindsight. Such a scenario is far from outrageous.

***

Overall, it seems like a pricey but reasonable decision. If nothing else, we can’t accuse the Flames of being cheap, as Lindholm + Hanifin are poised to be more expensive (possibly a lot more expensive) than Hamilton + Ferland, although Adam Fox clouds that situation.

Again, that trade is something fans of the Flames and Hurricanes will be chewing on for years, so it only seems right that Lindholm’s value may also fuel some fun/nerdy hockey debates.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Police: Drowning of NHL goalie Ray Emery not suspicious

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HAMILTON, Ontario (AP) — The drowning of former NHL goalie Ray Emery does not appear suspicious, police said.

The 35-year-old player whose career spanned 11 seasons drowned in Hamilton Harbour on Sunday.

He jumped off a boat near the Leander Boat Club to go swimming, and friends called emergency services at about 6 a.m. when he didn’t resurface, police said. Inspector Marty Schulenberg called it a ”case of misadventure.”

Emery’s body was found at about 2:50 p.m. Sunday, about 20 yards from where he went into the water, Schulenberg added. He said first responders were not able to locate Emery right away so they called the dive unit. The search took longer than anticipated because of concerns for the dive team.

”It’s a lengthy process and safety is paramount to our divers,” he said. ”We need to take the time do it safely and that’s what the delay was.”

A post-mortem was to be completed Monday.

”Mr. Emery was taking a swim this morning and the circumstances around that are a part of the investigation,” Schulenberg said. ”Those details remain to be uncovered by our investigators.”

Emery played for Ottawa, Chicago and Philadelphia. He helped the Senators reach the Stanley Cup Final in 2007 and won it as a backup with the Blackhawks in 2013.

The Blackhawks lauded him as a ”fierce competitor, a good teammate and a Stanley Cup champion.” Flyers President Paul Holmgren cited his ”talent, work ethic and determination,” calling him an ”outstanding teammate and an extremely gifted goaltender.”

Emery battled avascular necrosis, the same serious hip ailment that ended two-sport star Bo Jackson’s career. He and fellow Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford combined to win the William Jennings Trophy for allowing the league’s fewest goals during the lockout-shortened 2013 season and finished seventh in Vezina Trophy voting.

Emery played in 326 NHL regular-season and playoff games. He went 145-86-28 with a 2.70 goals-against average and 16 shutouts.

He faced issues off the ice, including an incident of road rage, assault of a trainer in Russia and behavior that led to his dismissal from Ottawa’s training camp.

”Ray had many highs and lows in his personal life and his career,” longtime agent J.P. Barry said. ”He never let things that would derail most of us stop his forward momentum. He had a big heart and a fun loving personality. He was someone we all rooted for to succeed.”

Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas knew Emery from junior hockey and the American Hockey League. He said Emery’s ”smile and intelligence made him a magnetic personality.”

Emery played in a charity hockey game Saturday night organized by Zac Rinaldo of the Nashville Predators. After word of his death spread, condolences poured in.

”I will always remember Ray as a good person first & foremost,” friend and former teammate Dan Carcillo wrote on Twitter. ”I envied his demeanor. He had a contagious personality.”

Former teammates pointed to Emery’s mentorship and leadership, especially in his final professional season in the AHL in 2015-16. Enforcer-turned-analyst Paul Bissonnette, a teammate with the AHL’s Ontario Reign, said Emery would treat other players to dinner almost every night.

”I’d heard nothing but great things before meeting him,” Bissonnette said. ”And it was true.”

AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno and The Canadian Press contributed to this report.