Photo Credit: NHL.com
Hockey in Vegas is now, more than ever, a thing, and as a result, the most tenured Penguin in the room isn’t one anymore. That was the biggest takeaway from the festivities in Sin City Wednesday night, the uncomfortable minutiae of the NHL Awards and ceremonial butchery of the expansion draft order notwithstanding.
Almost forty former Penguins were left off the protected lists of the 30 established NHL clubs before Marc-Andre Fleury became their newest alumnus. For further perspective on the franchise’s footprint, only six teams–mostly out west–had no ex-Penguins of any kind among their exposed players.
Perhaps the two most prominent ex-Penguins who were there for the Golden Knights’ taking, lo and behold, will be reunited after not only playing together before, but just passing each other in the handshake line at the end of the Stanley Cup Final. Aside from Fleury and James Neal, however, there were a number of other players subject to the Expansion Draft with memorable Pittsburgh ties, which got me thinking (hide the women and children!):
Speaking strictly in terms of volume, without regard to a player’s natural position, cap hit, etc., were there enough that Vegas could have built an entire team of ex-Penguins? Well, wonder no more; the answer is a definite yes–and no.
I tried to put together a full, and admittedly, fantastical, NHL roster consisting of the best of the exposed ex-Pens. Again, there was no problem assembling enough bodies, but with only one true center among the forward group, creating logical line combinations and putting such a team on the ice just wouldn’t be possible.
In any event, from those near-forty, let’s take a look at the ones the Knights did select–and the best (or better-than-worst, anyway) of the ones they didn’t:
Jaromir Jagr. Well, duh! Of all the skaters left exposed to GM George McPhee, the league’s active scoring leader is easily the most accomplished. Sometimes age really is just a number, but the way Jagr has consistently defied nature is impressive, and much of my childhood admiration of him has been restored. Hearing him wax poetic about his time in Pittsburgh as he was honored during 50th anniversary festivities had a lot to do with that. He seems to have found a niche in Florida, where there’s less external pressure to win, but also less fans, period. Hard as it is to really appreciate him past his prime, occasionally I catch myself wondering if Jim Rutherford would ever talk the Panthers into letting Yags ride off into the sunset in a Penguin sweater.
Neal. The Real Deal was a great goal-scorer in Pittsburgh, but his willingness to go tit-for-tat that was a collective flaw of Dan Bylsma’s teams was probably part of what punched his ticket out of here, not to mention his streaky nature in the playoffs. Still, you’d be hard-pressed to find a winger who meshed with Evgeni Malkin better than he. We all know how Jim Rutherford’s trade that exchanged him for Patric Hornqvist was vindicated recently; in fact, do yourself a favor and look at the similarity of Neal’s goal in Game 3 to Horny’s Cup-winner in Game 6:
The only thing more fitting would have been for Fleury, whose accidental knock by Neal in a late-season game knocked him out of last year’s playoffs, to be in goal for the latter. In any event, talk about what goes around coming around.
Jarome Iginla. During the truncated 2012-13 season, when Ray Shero went all “Supermarket Sweep,” Iggy became a focal point of the souped-up Penguins offense. His acquisition from Calgary was a total shock. If you were a Pens fan at the time, you really felt like Christmas had come early, and the Cup was theirs to lose. However, in retrospect, that team was too top-heavy, and Bylsma stubbornly playing Iginla out of position limited both men’s success. Nevertheless, what team wouldn’t appreciate having a veteran winger as diplomatic and decorated as this one?
Jussi Jokinen. The only problem here is, eventually, the well-read Las Vegans might tire of telling novice hockey spectators, “They’re not booing, they’re chanting ‘Juss.'” Kidding aside, Jokinen also came over at the 2013 deadline and ended up being a more serviceable player than Iginla, between his faceoff skills–it would be nice to still have him, if nothing else, for puck possession on power plays–and his prowess in shootouts. Before joining Jagr on the Panthers, he helped fellow countryman Olli Maatta settle in as an NHL rookie.
David Perron. This is one of a couple ex-Penguin forwards on this composite list who came to Pittsburgh long on promise and short on delivery. While the Mike Johnston experiment crashed and burned, the trade that brought Perron over from the Blues for Robert Bortuzzo was one of the underlying mistakes GMJR identified and rectified just the same. Not even playing on a line with Sid could jump-start Perron, who was dealt to Anaheim for Carl Hagelin, a key contributor to the 2016 Cup run. While Perron has never been a noticeable playoff performer, a second tour of duty with St. Louis this regular season seemed to get him back on track in time for his trip to Vegas.
Beau Bennett. He’s another one who just didn’t pan out. The SoCal native’s selection by the Pens in 2010 was a big deal because he was the highest-selected Californian in Entry Draft history. He did show flashes of excellence whenever he could stay out of his own way health-wise, enough for Ray Shero to want to reunite with him in New Jersey, but–well, his last season in Pittsburgh began with him hurting himself in a celly, let’s just leave it at that.
Eric Fehr. In building an eventual Stanley Cup champion GMJR wanted more character guys in the locker room, which is what he got in Fehr, a checking line winger, children’s book author and tremendous penalty killer. For me, though, he will be inexorably linked to the debut of one of the greatest oblique Mike Lange goal calls I’ve ever heard, which came after Fehr ensured a commanding lead for the Penguins in the Stanley Cup Final:
Dominic Moore. An always-noticeable, grinding role player from the early years of the Crosby-Malkin era. He was always a gritty opponent, too; his performance for Tampa Bay against his old team in the first round of the 2011 playoffs still haunts.
Chris Thorburn. A fourth-line grunt from that same period in Pens history. After just half a season here and before coming to Vegas, he caught on with the Winnipeg Jets, neé Atlanta Thrashers, as an occasional goal-scoring enforcer during a time when steady jobs for enforcers are becoming fewer and farther between.
Chris Conner. Admittedly, he’s here for sentimental reasons. In a previous life, not long after his NHL debut, I booked him on one of the radio shows I produced. He had a couple different stints with the Pens, netting most of his points by default during their injury-marred 2010-11 campaign.
Eric Tangradi. If we’re welcoming obscure ex-Pens, we might as well put him here too. He was a throw-in in the Chris-Kunitz-for-Ryan-Whitney trade, and perhaps Shero thought we could turn him into another Kevin Stevens. Problem is, he’s listed at 6’4″, 233 but has a history of playing like half of that. Last seen in the Red Wings organization with the Calder Cup champion Grand Rapids Griffins.
Lee Stempniak. A year after the Flames gave us Iginla for peanuts, we had to settle for this guy when we called them back. He’s been a journeyman since his one-and-a-fraction seasons in Pittsburgh, but a solid year on an otherwise forgettable Carolina squad pumps up his value to any team wanting or needing less expensive scoring depth.
Deryk Engelland. Long ago I went on a couple of dates with a girl who wanted a Deryk Engelland “shersey” in the worst possible way. I’ll give you three good guesses why:
I’ll never forget hearing he signed that big free-agent deal with the Flames. By the time I realized they were serious, Engo had matured and actually enjoyed a respectable run on Calgary’s blue line. He should at least feel comfortable playing in front of Fleury for the first time since looking as raw as a young, Samuelsson-style defenseman could look in a Pens uniform.
Ben Lovejoy. The answer to a trivia question–the only Penguin to win multiple Stanley Cups on two separate stays with the franchise. Quite frankly, I miss his media candor a lot more than his play on the back end. To be fair, though, he was one of Rutherford’s much-maligned (re-)acquisitions who picked up his game en route to Cup No. 4, not unlike how shot-blocker extraordinaire Ian Cole, frequently paired with Lovejoy, did the same.
Robert Bortuzzo. As he did when he brought Lovejoy back in exchange for troubled defenseman Simon Despres, GMJR took a lot of social media heat when he dealt Bortuzzo to St. Louis. His Pens teams will never be confused with hard-hitting ones; Bortuzzo was not strictly a knuckle-dragger, but he was here mainly for his muscle. He would still be a decent fit for a team looking to add toughness–and, by now, a little bit more experience–to its blue line.
In addition, he did this very good deed for former Quaker Valley star Kevin Kenny, one of my favorite members of the PIHL family:
Michal Rozsival. Another tough guy from the late Nineties who left around the time Craig Patrick cleaned house, Rozsival has gone on to win a pair of Stanley Cups as a regular in Chicago. He kept his gloves on and became a dependable stay-at-home defenseman with fighting being down across the league, but, from an early age, he was never shy about getting his nose dirty.
Paul Martin. Of the polarizing Penguins under Dan Bylsma, Martin might be at the top of that heap. San Jose fans got a glimpse of why in the first game of last year’s Stanley Cup Final, when he was out to lunch on a pretty important goal (yes, the “Bonino! Bonino! Bonino!” goal):
Having said that, Martin has always been a good skater, with the ability to make good stick-on-puck plays, and at the offensive end, his slap shot isn’t bad:
That’s part of what bugged a lot of fans. They felt they didn’t get their money’s worth offensively from Martin, though I’ve maintained his game was inadvertently warped from all that time spent in New Jersey. Some believe Kris Letang was subservient to him and has been a better team leader as a result of them being parted. Martin, for his part, was a solid locker room guy, humble in victory and eloquent in defeat, but alas, a symbol of the untapped potential of the Bylsma era.
Brooks Orpik. Picture Roger Clemens when he pitched for the Houston Astros; he still knew how to get guys out, but he didn’t have the eyebrow-raising stuff anymore. As of now, that’s Orpik in a nutshell. He was drafted here during the lean years before becoming a key blue line fixture early in the Crosby-Malkin era, as underscored by one shift in the 2008 Stanley Cup Final that became the iconic moment of his Penguin career:
Of course, “Free Candy” was an equally important member of the Penguins squad that got its sweet revenge in 2009. Since leaving, however, his reputation has taken a big hit after two tough (and one suspension-marred) playoff losses to his old club.
Orpik can still–legally–dish out big hits, for that matter. He can still play the position. He just can’t do it at the same pace. He got paid by the Capitals, all right, but the fact they rolled the dice with him in Vegas’ draft (see what I did there?) says a lot about how much he’s really worth.
So if I were McPhee, and I had to pick one of the ex-Penguin Expansion Draft refugees to back up my No. 1 netminder, who would it be?
I could go with Mike Condon, who was a Penguin for two seconds this season and later got a couple regular-season wins against them for Ottawa. But I want the guy who, in a real pinch, got the job done. Condon got his nose rubbed in an Eastern Conference Final blowout loss at PPG Paints Arena (in the immortal words of Tim Curry, I know because I was there), whereas Jeff Zatkoff, in his most recent playoff appearance, got Pittsburgh a win that started a Stanley Cup run–after learning via text from the Flower he would start.
That brings us to Fleury, and brings me back 14 years. Craig Patrick, who, in his heyday, could sell matchbooks in Hell, actually convinced the Panthers to trade the top overall draft pick in 2003 for the ability to take him. There are certain moves Patrick made over the years that, for the life of me, I’ll never understand how he was able to pull off. That one ranks pretty high on that list. You just knew in your gut, because Patrick was so reputable back then, that the pick would be worth it–or at least you hoped, after so many other goaltenders in the Penguins’ system post-Barrasso and post-Wregget had flopped, some without playing a second of NHL hockey.
I remember listening to Fleury’s debut online in my junior dorm. His career in Pittsburgh did not get off to the easiest start, although, for the young team in front of him, hard times were par for the course until “The Kid” showed up. His first shot faced was a goal–and a game-winner, to boot, in a 3-0 home loss to the Kings that saw his own team accumulate all of a dozen shots.
I remember the light at the end of the tunnel: Fleury stopped 46, including an Esa Tikkanen penalty shot that gave Pens die-hards an early glimpse of Fleury’s trademark poke-check–and kudos to the Pens for remembering that in their recently-released tribute video.
I remember just as well listening to his first NHL win, a 4-3 decision over the Red Wings at The Igloo, while I studied–part of the Flower’s blooming into the league’s Rookie of the Month for his first month as a pro. I remember being convinced the Pens, at last, had picked the right goalie.
I remember that fateful Friday night at the now-vacant “Joe” when Fleury saw the Wings again, with so much more at stake. I remember being barely able to contain myself, my knees shaking like leaves the entire third period, while the Flower refused to wilt, time standing still as he denied Lidstrom. Seventeen years of never getting over the hump and almost losing our franchise twice, and we were finally back on top. I was on cloud (twenty-)nine.
I remember, years later, sitting in the second level of CONSOL Energy Center with my eventual fiancée, thanks to one of my mother’s coworkers. We were treated to a nice Penguins win over the Canadiens with Fleury starring in goal. I remember, after the game got out of hand, both teams got a little out of hand and this–almost–happened:
this close to seeing that damned altar boy fight!
We may never have gotten to see him score that empty-net goal he always wanted, but we were
I remember, at the time, there was speculation that Budaj was a black-belt martial artist, which the Montreal backup later denied.
“Is he really?!” Fleury replied with that familiar grin, eyes wide as dinner plates, when a reporter suggested this after the game.
Classic Flower–in more ways than one.
I’ll remember a lot of things about Marc-Andre Fleury. What I’ll never forget are his humanity and his humility. He was consistently at his best when the Penguins were at their worst. He was consistently, like many Pittsburgh sports figures, a prisoner of his own success. Yet he consistently set the perfect example for each and every one, balancing his on-ice excellence with his yeoman’s work off the ice, right down to his last day as a Penguin, from building a playground to delivering a bicycle for a needy child at Christmastime and not wanting an iota of credit (once again, I know because I was there).
Marc-Andre Fleury was one of the most scrutinized players on the ice, night in and night out, and still, his biggest thrill came from the controlled and, sometimes, uncontrolled chaos of that blue paint, that four-by-six. When the Pens were trying to eliminate the Capitals for a second straight year, Washington was relentless in its offensive assault, and Fleury was the on-ice glue holding the Pens’ entire playoff run together. He said it was “fun.” And he was serious. He embraced it.
Four years ago, with his career at a crossroads, Ray Shero put his foot down and insisted he would never get rid of Fleury on his watch. Shero lost his job over some ill-fated decisions, but it’s he who was ultimately right on that one. This year, when Fleury went through another fluid job situation with heir apparent Matt Murray, he said and did all the right things, all the time. His passing of the Stanley Cup, and with it, the Penguins’ goaltending torch, to Murray once and for all is one of the best storybook endings I’ve seen in sports.
Now he’s barely off the plane and already running a youth hockey clinic, already trying to grow the game out in the desert. This should amaze me, but from Marc-Andre Fleury, I’ve come to expect nothing less. I hope not just the novice fans of the sport, but also the devotees in Vegas are quick to realize just how lucky they are to have him.
Growing pains are expected of expansion teams, and the Golden Knights may stink on ice–literally–for a couple years. Off the ice, however, that franchise is pushing the right buttons, including selecting the perfect face-of-the-franchise player. I’ve waxed poetic about many players here and could do the same for many more, but there just won’t be another one like Fleury.
I was as skeptical about putting an NHL team in that city as anyone else. Now I can’t wait to take my first Vegas vacation, and you’d better believe I’ll return with his replica jersey (and my life savings intact).
By then, I figure the Marc-Andre and Veronique Fleury Halfway Home for Problem Gamblers should be open.
(UPDATED 6/26/17 4:35 PM: Fleury’s save total from his NHL debut has been corrected.)