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.

Ducks’ Urho Vaakanainen crashes into boards, leaves on stretcher

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ANAHEIM, Calif. — Ducks defenseman Urho Vaakanainen was taken off the Honda Center ice on a stretcher after he crashed into the end boards in the first period of Anaheim’s preseason game against the San Jose Sharks.

The Finnish defenseman was conscious and alert with full movement in his extremities at UCI Medical Center, the Ducks said.

The frightening incident occurred midway through the opening period when Vaakanainen smashed into the boards at a dangerous speed behind the Sharks’ net. Vaakanainen appeared to be concentrating on the pass he had just made to Derek Grant, who scored the Ducks’ opening goal on the assist.

Vaakanainen’s teammates came onto the ice and gathered around him as he was taken away on the stretcher.

The Ducks acquired the 23-year-old Vaakanainen from Boston last March in the deal that sent longtime Ducks defenseman Hampus Lindholm to the Bruins. After recording two assists in 14 games for the Ducks last season, Vaakanainen is attempting to win a top-six role on Anaheim’s defense this fall.

Lightning donate $2 million to Hurricane Ian relief efforts

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TAMPA, Fla. — The Tampa Bay Lightning and team owner Jeff Vinik are donating $2 million toward Hurricane Ian relief efforts.

The NHL team announced that $1 million each will be donated by the Tampa Bay Lightning Foundation and the Vinik Family Foundation.

“This is a tragic situation for many families and communities across the state of Florida, but especially so in the southwest region of the state,” Vinik said in a statement released by the team. “In times like these the most important thing we can do is support one another, and we hope this donation will help families recover and rebuild in the months to come.”

Ian made landfall Wednesday on Florida’s Gulf Coast, south of the Tampa Bay area. The Lightning postponed two home preseason games and moved the club’s training camp to Nashville, Tennessee, during the storm.

Maple Leafs sign defenseman Rasmus Sandin to 2-year deal

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TORONTO — Rasmus Sandin has signed a two-year, $2.8 million contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs, the club announced on Thursday.

The 22-year-old from Sweden was the 29th overall selection in the 2018 draft. Sandin had 16 points in 51 games with Toronto last season. He’s played in 88 career regular-season games, with six goals and 22 assists, and has one goal in five playoff games.

“Got a great set of tools,” fellow defenseman Jake Muzzin said. “With experience, I think they’re only going to get better.”

The signing comes as the Leafs’ blueliners been hit hard by injuries. Muzzin has been dealing with a back issue, and Timothy Liljegren recently had surgery for a hernia.

Toronto then lost Jamie Benn (groin) and Carl Dahlstrom (shoulder) in Wednesday’s 3-0 preseason victory over the Montreal Canadiens, pressing forwards Calle Jarnkrok and Alexander Kerfoot into defensive roles for two periods.

Back with Wild, Fleury welcomes big workload as clear No. 1

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ST. PAUL, Minn. — With his ever-present smile, tireless approach and long list of accomplishments in the net, Marc-Andre Fleury has always embraced a heavy workload.

The Minnesota Wild sure haven’t shied away from leaning hard on their new – and 37-year-old – goalie. After arriving in a deadline-day trade in March and re-signing with the Wild in July, the guy everyone calls “Flower” is still fully abloom as he begins his 19th season in the NHL.

“They say, `You play,’ I play, unless maybe I’m hurt or something,” Fleury said. “But other than that, I like playing.”

Wild general manager Bill Guerin initially planned to bring back both Fleury and Cam Talbot, who made the All-Star team and went 13-0-3 in his last 16 regular season starts before being benched in favor of Fleury for the first-round playoff series against St. Louis. The Wild lost in six games, after Talbot got the cold start in the elimination game and gave up four goals on 26 shots.

Guerin changed his mind, though, after signing Fleury to a two-year, $7 million contract. Realizing Talbot’s frustration from the lack of postseason action, he didn’t want to risk any tension or discontent. Talbot was traded to Ottawa for Filip Gustavsson, who will be the No. 2 goalie while top prospect Jesper Wallstedt gets more development in the AHL.

Gustavsson has only 23 career regular-season starts, nearly 200 fewer than Talbot, so it’s a good bet that Fleury will get the majority of the games.

“I was ready to share the load with him, but things didn’t work out and happy to be having the chance to play maybe a bit more. It’s fun to play. It’s more fun than sitting on the bench,” said Fleury, who went 28-23-5 in 56 combined starts for Chicago and Minnesota last season with a 2.90 goals against average and a .908 save percentage.

The Wild reconvened for training camp last week, beginning their quest to recapture the mojo they enjoyed last season while setting franchise records for points (113), wins (53) and goals (305). The only team that finished ahead of them in the Western Conference was Colorado, which went on to win the Stanley Cup, but they never met the Avs in the playoffs because the Blues got to them first.

There’s a strong chemistry in place, at least, to build upon.

“We still have a lot of guys here who were here last year. We’re just trying to make it even better, just trying to listen to everybody,” center Joel Eriksson Ek said. “We want to set a standard and a way for how hard this team’s going to work.”

The Wild start the regular season by hosting the New York Rangers on Oct. 13.

COMINGS AND GOINGS

The most significant roster move of the summer amongst the skaters was the inevitable salary-cap-driven trade of second-leading scorer Kevin Fiala to Los Angeles. Fiala had a career-high 33 goals and 52 assists last season. Guerin otherwise dabbled mostly in two-way contracts in free agency for depth. Former Anaheim center Sam Steel signed with Minnesota last month, one day after defenseman Dimitry Kulikov was dealt to the Ducks.

MORE POWER

The Wild were done in during the playoffs by abysmal special teams. They went just 4 for 24 on the power play against the Blues, and head coach Dean Evason had the team working on that on the first day on the ice. The penalty kill that lagged last season was a focus of the second practice.

“It has to get better, no question,” Evason said.

BLUE LINE SHUFFLE

Captain Jared Spurgeon has been placed with Jonas Brodin on the first pair on defense, and Jake Middleton has joined Matt Dumba on the second unit. Dumba and Brodin are close friends who’ve been paired together for several seasons.

“Dumbs is a shooter too,” said Middleton, who re-signed for three years and $7.35 million. “It’s pretty exciting. I can get some cookies passing him the puck. That’d be a big plus. I think it’ll work well. He loves hitting guys too. He plays a gritty game as well so I think we’ll be a good combo.”

UP FRONT

With Jordan Greenway recovering from offseason surgeries, Tyson Jost will get the first chance to skate with Eriksson Ek and Marcus Foligno. The departure of Fiala has opened at least one spot for a rookie to make the team, with 2020 first-round draft pick Marco Rossi in line for it.

ON THE SLATE

This is the first time in eight years the Wild will play their regular-season opener at home. After three more games at Xcel Energy Center, they don’t hit the road until a five-game trip that starts Oct. 22 at Boston. The Wild have a season-long nine-game homestand from Feb. 9-21.