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Penguins assistant rejuvenates Fleury’s career, offers reason for hope | TribLIVE.com
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Penguins assistant rejuvenates Fleury’s career, offers reason for hope

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Chaz Palla | Trib Total Media
Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury against the Flyers on Wednesday, April 1, 2015 at Consol Energy Center.
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Chaz Palla | Trib Total Media
Penguins goaltender coach Mike Bales works with goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury on Wednesday, April 1, 2015, at Consol Energy Center.
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Trib Total Media 2015 MLB preview cover, published Sunday, April 5, 2015.
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The Blue Jackets' Nick Foligno scores past the Penguins' Marc-Andre Fleury during the during the third period Saturday, April 4, 2015, in Columbus, Ohio.
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The Blue Jackets' Jack Johnson (top) knocks down the Penguins' Brandon Sutter during the first period Saturday, April 4, 2015, in Columbus, Ohio.
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The Blue Jackets' Kevin Connauton and the Penguins' Sidney Crosby battle for the puck during the first period Saturday, April 4, 2015, in Columbus, Ohio.
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The Blue Jackets' Sergei Bobrovsky (left) makes a save as teammate Jack Johnson (center) and the Penguins' Patric Hornqvist look for the rebound during the third period Saturday, April 4, 2015, in Columbus, Ohio.
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USA Today Sports
Blue Jackets goalie Sergei Bobrovsky (72) makes a save against the Penguins during the third period Saturday, April 4, 2015, in Columbus, Ohio.
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USA Today Sports
Penguins center Brandon Sutter celebrates a goal against the Blue Jackets during the second period Saturday, April 4, 2015, in Columbus, Ohio.
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Penguins defenseman Derrick Pouliot flips the puck away from Blue Jackets center Artem Anisimov during the second period Saturday, April 4, 2015, in Columbus, Ohio.
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Penguins center Sidney Crosby carries the puck as Blue Jackets center Alexander Wennberg trails the play during the first period Saturday, April 4, 2015, in Columbus, Ohio.
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Penguins defenseman Derrick Pouliot (left) controls the puck as Blue Jackets left wing Matt Calvert trails the play during the first period Saturday, April 4, 2015, in Columbus, Ohio.
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USA Today Sports
Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury makes a save against the Blue Jackets during the first period Saturday, April 4, 2015, in Columbus, Ohio.
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Blue Jackets celebrate Nick Foligno's third goal against the Penguins during the third period Saturday, April 4, 2015, in Columbus, Ohio.

There have been season-ending injuries to a top-six winger and a top-four defenseman in Pascal Dupuis and Olli Maatta, respectively.

Don’t forget a mumps outbreak, more than 300 man-games lost to injury, an anemic power play and an actually anemic Chris Kunitz, who has battled through an iron deficiency and endured separate goal-less droughts of 11, 11 and 14 games.

Evgeni Malkin played games on a line with Mark Arcobello, Rob Klinkhammer and Andrew Ebbett, among others.

Yet the Penguins have not faltered and are in contention for the No. 2 spot in the Metropolitan Division. Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury’s steady-yet-spectacular play has been perhaps the most obvious reason.

Less noticeable has been the man who saved Fleury, who resuscitated his career, who has this city realizing the Penguins’ best shot at a postseason run may well start with the goaltender those same folks wanted run out of town.

Mike Bales has emerged as an elite goaltending coach. It’s something that even he never thought possible.

“Trust me when I say this,” said Mitch Korn, who has coached goalies for nearly 25 years and is the Washington Capitals goaltending coach. “Everybody around the league has noticed what Mike Bales has done with Marc-Andre Fleury.”

How Bales saved Fleury following a 2012-13 postseason in which Fleury was relegated to backup duty is a story worth repeating. Only Bales won’t repeat it. Neither will Fleury. Some things, Bales explained, stay within the goaltender fraternity.

What’s obvious to anyone watching the Penguins during the past two seasons are Fleury’s dramatically different numbers since working with Bales.

Fleury’s goals-against average is down nearly half a goal. His save percentage has risen. Ditto for his winning percentage.

In 467 games before Bales, Fleury had 23 shutouts. He has 14 in 123 games with Bales as his coach.

“There’s a definitely a good relationship there,” backup Thomas Greiss said. “They have a lot of confidence in each other.”

An unlikely path

Bales never had a serious thought about becoming a coach. After playing at Ohio State, Bales made his NHL debut with the Boston Bruins, the team that drafted him, in 1992-93.

He also spent time with the Ottawa Senators as well as in the AHL, IHL and overseas in a career that lasted until 2010. In 1997-98, Bales played for the Rochester Americans, the Buffalo Sabres’ AHL affiliate, and Korn was his goalie coach. The two remain close friends.

Shortly after retirement, Bales remembers having coffee in Ottawa during the Penguins’ first-round playoff series with Ray Shero, then the team’s general manager and — coincidentally — Bales’ first agent.

“I knew I wanted to stay in hockey,” Bales said. “But I didn’t know which direction I wanted to go or what I wanted to do.”

Shero said the Penguins would be hiring for a goaltender development coach and urged Bales to apply. Bales did. The Penguins hired him in July 2011.

The role turned out to be perfect. Not only did Bales work on the technical side, but he also explored scouting, both amateur and professional. He studied video. He attended the NHL Draft. He talked with Korn about crafting his own coaching style. And when his current job opened in summer 2013, Bales pounced.

“Coaching is the same thing as managing in any other profession,” Korn said. “Whether you’re a supermarket manager or a university administrator, the ability to communicate, to get your point across and help others get better is what good coaches do.

“Mike has that. He’s got a great temperament. He has a real good ability to communicate.”

‘Not a self-promoter’

What Bales doesn’t have is an ego. The Penguins’ past two head coaches are published authors. Bales would rather not talk about himself. He’s happy to do his work and let Fleury and Greiss get the credit.

“I’m not a self-promoter,” Bales said. “I don’t run camps. I don’t write books. I’m here to work with the guys. I’m not trying to up my price here with my camps to say I’m the goalie coach of the Penguins so I can get an extra $300 out of kids.”

This is important because of how he’s handled Fleury. Bales didn’t attempt wholesale changes. Fleury has a distinctive style, and it likely would have soured the relationship from the jump for Bales to tweak that.

He simply took what Fleury didn’t do so well — positioning — and provided ways to improve while preserving one of Fleury’s greatest strengths: his aggressive stick.

In goalie-speak, Bales quieted Fleury’s game.

“He didn’t try to change everything I was doing,” Fleury said. “He tried to work with me. Little things. We changed a few things. He would have me try something, and if I liked it, use it. If not, try something else.

“He’s been open, easy to talk with. Honest. It’s been good.”

Press Bales for details, and the man’s a brick wall. What he will allow is they’ve focused on Fleury’s play around the posts, what he does when the puck is below the goal line and his depth in certain situations.

Then, another deflection.

“A big part of it is Marc maturing,” Bales said. “He’s getting older. Goaltenders, as they get older, change and become better. Part of that is attributed to seeing all the different patterns in the game. As you get older, you’ve seen everything happen before. Some things hundreds and thousands of times through practices and games that everything becomes more instinctual.

Tireless approach

Bales cuts off the question.

“My career record in the NHL was not very good, that’s for sure,” he said.

Bales went 2-15-1 as an NHL starter with a goals-against average of 4.13. But he seems to be thriving at coaching, and Korn, who didn’t play in the NHL, thinks he knows why.

“A lot of athletes who weren’t the best turn out to be really good coaches because they have to be smarter and learn more because they’re not as gifted as the stars,” Korn said.

Bales never was an everyday NHL goaltender like Fleury. His humble approach, not pretending to know what that’s like, has endeared him to Fleury and cultivated respect.

Yet it’s Bales’ tireless approach that has resonated the most. After every period, Bales sprints from the seventh floor at Consol Energy Center to the dressing room to offer tips and teaching points. He relies heavily on video, although that’s another don’t-go-there topic.

Having to unturn every stone to find advantages as a player has carried Bales as a goaltending coach.

“I grew up in an era where you kind of had to figure things out on your own,” Bales said. “Back then, not every team had a goaltending coach. You learn to coach yourself in some ways. I think that’s probably part of how I learned a lot of the stuff. I was forced to learn it to be better myself.”

Bales’ impact on the Penguins hasn’t been limited to Fleury. Jeff Zatkoff never played an NHL game, and Bales coached a 12-6-2 record, 2.61 goals-against average and .912 save percentage year out of him in 2013-14. Greiss could set career highs in wins and save percentage.

In his former role, Bales discovered prospect Matt Murray, who set the AHL rookie record with 10 shutouts this season and may well have done enough to jump past Tristan Jarry as Fleury’s heir apparent.

The crown jewel, though, has been Fleury.

“There are so many people around us, you know?” Fleury said. “Coaches, teammates … your family is behind you. There are a lot of people who support us in different ways. I think Mike has been great at his job. He’s been definitely helping me out. Change a few things here and there. He’s been a big help for me.”

Jason Mackey is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at jmackey@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Mackey_Trib.

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