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Starkey: Fleury deal perfectly sensible

As far as citywide celebrations go, we can agree a Russell Martin signing would rate an 11 — or maybe 111 — on a scale of 1 to 10. A new Ben Roethlisberger contract would do the same.

At the other end, we find Steelers cornerback Cortez Allen. His new contract maybe merited a two. It has since shrunk to a one.

The Marc-Andre Fleury extension falls somewhere in between. I'll give it a six for now, with some serious growth potential.

The bottom line is that the Penguins paid average starter money for a starter who has put up average numbers. That makes the four-year, $23 million extension announced Wednesday eminently reasonable.

Here's the caveat: I think there's a real chance Fleury's best hockey is in front of him. He rescued his career last season and appears poised to take off with the new coaching staff — and one important holdover from the old staff.

Ray Shero left the Penguins with some nice parting gifts. One was goaltending coach Mike Bales, whom new general manager Jim Rutherford wisely retained.

A former goalie himself, Rutherford said Wednesday that he noticed a change in Fleury's game last season, his first with Bales.

“I really noticed his consistency,” Rutherford said. “I know he changed some of his offseason preparation, and it carried through the whole season.”

That is why, shortly after taking office, Rutherford called Fleury and encouraged him to keep everything the same. Bales is a key part of the process. Fleury had never worked with a cutting-edge goalie coach. Gilles Meloche was more confidante than teacher.

Maybe the following statistic is coincidence. It's certainly based on more than one factor. But it's worth noting that since he started working with Bales, Fleury has eight shutouts in 73 games. That is one every nine games compared to one every 19 games over the nine years before that.

One tangible change in Fleury's game last year was his post play. He is less susceptible to leaky goals from bad angles. He is better when the play is behind him.

Overall, he appears more compact and relaxed in goal. He is more prone to quell the madness around him than fuel it. The wild aggression is mostly tamed. He is playing with what one might call a controlled athleticism.

Fleury, 29, also has matured, as teammates such as Rob Scuderi pointed out last season.

“Now I'm like an old guy on the team,” Fleury said.

All eyes were on Fleury from Day 1 last year after he'd been pulled from the previous year's playoffs. He responded with some serious mental toughness. He might not have slain his playoff demons, but he wounded them.

Fleury also could be a major benefactor of new coach Mike Johnston's system. He is off to a fabulous start with a 1.89 goals-against average, a .931 save percentage and three shutouts, tied for the NHL lead.

The Penguins are protecting their net better, often collapsing toward Fleury. They have not allowed as many rebound chances (Fleury is more prone to secure pucks or kick them to harmless areas, as well) and play in such a way that forwards are not stretched out all over the ice. That means they are usually on the right side of the puck when turnovers happen, which reduces opponents' odd-man breaks.

So yes, I believe there's a chance Fleury's best hockey is in front of him. He wouldn't be the first goalie to get better after hitting the big 3-0.

“Historically, there's evidence they can get better into their 30s and play at a much higher level,” USA Today hockey writer Kevin Allen said. “I know fans have a love-hate relationship with Fleury, but I really think he was their best option.”

To that point, Allen raised a question: How were the Penguins going to upgrade the goalie position without giving up a key piece of their team? The free-agent goaltending market looks awfully thin for next summer. The Penguins' young goalie prospects are not yet ready.

This extension might not have people dancing in the streets. But most of the ones I've heard from are smiling.

It looks like a win-win from here.

Let's talk again in May.

Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at [email protected].


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