Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Marc-Andre Fleury's character makes it easy for former mates to be happy for his success


The goaltender was the face of the franchise from the start and he's led the Golden Knights on an improbable ride to the Stanley Cup final


May 21, 2018

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Vegas Golden Knights' James Neal (18), Deryk Engelland (5), goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury (29) and the rest of the team celebrate after defeating the Winnipeg Jets during NHL Western Conference Finals, game 5, in Winnipeg, Sunday, May 20, 2018.(Trevor Hagan/The Canadian Press via AP)

WASHINGTON — Now that the Vegas Golden Knights have advanced to the Stanley Cup final, it might be natural for some GMs to feel seller’s remorse with some of the decisions that were made at last year’s expansion draft.
Consider: Vegas was given Florida’s Reilly Smith and a fourth-round pick for selecting Jonathan Marchessault; Minnesota offered Alex Tuch and a third-round pick for taking Erik Haula; and Columbus peddled a first- and a second-round draft pick if the Golden Knights would select William Karlsson and agree to swallow David Clarkson’s contract.
Combined, those five players have scored 25 goals and 63 points in these playoffs.
And then there’s goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who has played so well that he could still be the odds-on favourite to win the Conn Smythe Trophy even if Vegas doesn’t win the Stanley Cup. The Pittsburgh Penguins, with Matt Murray as their No. 1 goalie and eager to shed the $11.5 million left on the final two seasons of Fleury contract, not only left him unprotected in the expansion draft but included a second-round pick in 2020 for Vegas to take him off their hands.
It was a deal that Penguins GM Jim Rutherford needed to make for the good of his team. But it was also a deal that he doesn’t regret. The person who has benefited the most is Fleury, and that’s a win-win where Rutherford is concerned.
“Anybody that knows him is happy for him,” Rutherford said in a phone interview on Monday. “Everybody’s cheering for him. I am one of those people.
“Over the years, frustration had set in over his playing time and so he got to the place where he wanted to go. And he’s taken that opportunity to the limit and obviously, he’s put himself in a position to win a Cup and we’re very, very happy for him.”
Outside of the crease, Vegas is a team with improbable stars who have punched above their weight class since Day 1, Fleury’s play in the post-season really shouldn’t be that surprising. A first-overall pick in 2003, he won his first Stanley Cup with the Penguins as a starter in 2009 and won back-to-back championships in a supporting role in 2016 and 2017.
Still, what Fleury has done this year has been special. He has lost only three of 15 games in the playoffs, posting a 1.68 goals-against average and a .947 save percentage with four shutouts. In Sunday’s Game 5 clincher against Winnipeg in the conference final, Fleury stopped 31 of 32 shots for a 2-1 win.
“Fundamentally, he’s been so good,” Rutherford said. “He’s in position all the time — in position for rebounds and in position for when it’s a broken play. There’s no surprise he has the ability to do what he’s been doing.”
Ideally, Rutherford would have preferred Fleury to continue doing this for the Penguins. But it was clear that Fleury was not happy as Murray’s backup. Whether it was Vegas or somewhere else, Rutherford knew it was time for the 33-year-old to play eleswhere.
“We stretched that two-goalie situation as far as we could,” Rutherford said. “I’m glad we did, because last year (Fleury) played in the first two series and played very well and got us to the conference final. And, of course, Murray took over again and won the last two series. But for cap reasons and the fact that Murray was 10 years younger and had won two Cups for Pittsburgh, (letting him go) was the obvious thing to do.
“No question, both guys wanted to play. To Marc’s credit, he was really good about it despite the fact that he wasn’t playing as much as he would have liked to.”
Washington Capitals defenceman Brooks Orpik, himself a former Penguin for 10 years playing in front of Fleury, believes the way it ended for Fleury in Pittsburgh was motivation for him to show the Penguins — and the entire hockey world — that he was still an elite No. 1.
“I don’t think he was treated properly his last two years in Pittsburgh, so I think he’s probably enjoying himself even more because of that,” said Orpik, whose wife sent Fleury’s wife a text of congratulations Sunday. “It obviously wasn’t the situation he wanted. In talking to him, it wasn’t easy. But he kept his mouth shut and was a good teammate.”
It’s that team-first approach that made Fleury so popular in Pittsburgh and has also endeared him to his new fans in Vegas. It’s also, according to former teammate Chris Kunitz, partially why he’s been so successful over his career. Guys want to go to war for him.
“One of the best teammates you could ask for,” said Tampa Bay’s Kunitz, who spent nine years with Fleury in Pittsburgh. “He’s obviously playing with a lot of confidence and you can see the way he’s acting and smiling. I think that engages his team to play at another level.”
It’s sort of strange to hear players talking about a potential Stanley Cup final rival in this way. But Fleury is different. As Rutherford said, whether you are playing with or against him, it’s difficult not to root for him.
“Any time you see a former teammate and good friend succeed, you’re happy for them,” Kunitz said. “You go through different situations in this business and there probably was no better person to deal with those things than him … credit to him and the character he’s shown.”

Vegas' amazing story or not, Penguins made right call on Marc-Andre Fleury


By Mark Madden
May 22, 2018

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Marc-Andre Fleury in Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals

Vegas is in the Stanley Cup Final.
It's an amazing story and won't be repeated.
The NHL's next expansion franchise could put together a roster using the same rules, and likely will. Why would that team settle for anything less?
But the NHL's GMs won't make the same mistakes. For example, Florida gave Jonathan Marchessault to Vegas upon condition of also taking Reilly Smith, thereby assembling two-thirds of the Golden Knights' first line. That trio was completed when Columbus gave Vegas a first- and second-round pick to take William Karlsson, who promptly netted 43 goals.
Columbus also foisted the contract of injured forward David Clarkson onto the Golden Knights. Clarkson currently coaches high school hockey in Ohio. He will not receive a Stanley Cup ring if Vegas wins.
Or perhaps he will. Heck, the Penguins give 'em to Zamboni drivers.
General manager George McPhee did a brilliant job of assembly. Gerard Gallant should not only win coach of the year, the award should be named after him.
But the main reason the Vegas story is a one-off is because of Marc-Andre Fleury. Not many Hall-of-Fame goaltenders still in some stage of their prime are available in expansion drafts.
Fleury posted career bests in goals-against average and save percentage during the regular season. He leads the playoffs in all significant goaltending categories, and is the clear front-runner for postseason MVP. Barring his utter collapse in the Final, Fleury gets the Conn Smythe Trophy win or lose.
Fleury was very likely to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame had his career played out via the trajectory established.
This season with Vegas has made Fleury an absolute lock.
But despite relentless whining and moaning by a fraction of Yinzer Nation, the Penguins still did right by keeping Matt Murray instead of Fleury. Not one GM in NHL history would have done anything different.
That's not disputing Fleury is having a better season than Murray. Numbers don't lie, and Fleury is in the Stanley Cup Final.
But Fleury is 33, Murray 23. Murray makes $2 million less per season. Murray won the last two Stanley Cups — though Fleury contributed mightily in 2017, winning nine playoff games to Murray's seven.
The expansion draft meant that keeping both was not an option. Anyway, Fleury wanted to be the starting goaltender somewhere. For Penguins GM Jim Rutherford, it was an easy decision.
Penguins fans mostly backed it. Until Fleury started standing on his head this spring, that is. Then history got revised.
People say how much Fleury helped “in the room.” Without having ever been in the room. People say Fleury is a great guy. He is, but most haven't met him. A good portion of Pittsburgh tried to run Fleury out of town from 2012-15, after Fleury stumbled in the '12 and '13 playoffs. (But Fleury was never booed at home. The paying customers always treated him reverentially.)
Fleury did well in the '14 and '15 playoffs, and during the '15-16 season when he posted his best goals-against average and save percentage as a Penguin.
But, to critics, Fleury wasn't allowed to redeem himself until he left. Now he's gone, and they want him back. Fleury's brilliance has made Murray a scapegoat. Murray's perceived weaknesses are picked at like scabs. Murray winning two Stanley Cups before his rookie season was complete is ignored.
That's stupid. But that's social media.
I'm rooting for Fleury, but not because it proves the Penguins wrong. Keeping the goaltender that put rings on your fingers in each of the previous two seasons simply can't be proven wrong.
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Legalized sports gambling won't change much


By Mark Madden
May 17, 2018

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Las Vegas Race and Sports Book at the Mirage

Legalized sports gambling will result in a lot of revenue.
It's already resulting in a lot of stupidity.
Often asked: “Now that betting on sports is legal everywhere, will Pete Rose get in the Baseball Hall of Fame?”
Uh, no. The Supreme Court is allowing states to legalize sports gambling. But MLB is not allowing those under its umbrella to bet on baseball. Rule 21 forbidding such has long been posted in every MLB clubhouse. It's kept better than Rose out of Cooperstown: Shoeless Joe Jackson, for one.
Jackson and seven others on the Chicago White Sox threw the 1919 World Series. Jackson has MLB's third-highest lifetime batting average ever at .356, but that doesn't matter.
The “Black Sox scandal” couldn't happen today, even more so now that legalized sports gambling is going nationwide.
If irregular betting patterns suggest a fix, legalized sports gambling provides a network that would spot it. Whistle-blowing is built in.
Pittsburgh will provide irregular betting patterns of a sort.
Every area bookie knows that everybody bets on the Steelers, so the foe often gets a few extra points by way of balancing the books via steering some wagers to the opposition.
The line isn't meant to predict a winner. It's meant to get equal bets on each side. The book profits via the 10 percent commission, or vig.
Will legal bookies do that locally? They had better.
The vig might be more with a legal local bookie, because gambling revenue will be taxed at a whopping rate of 36 percent. But that would be awful PR, and would chase a lot of action to the illegal books.
Illegal bookies will survive, by the way, because they let you bet on credit. (They also pay 600-1 on the Daily Number straight. The state only pays 500-1.)
Legalizing sports betting will make it an even bigger business than it is now. Conspiracy nuts will spot fixes everywhere, especially when they lose. But the chance of a score being finagled will be less than ever.
Will bettors gamble too much? Some will. But legalized gambling is more likely to get problem gamblers to seek help. The bookie at the bar doesn't care.
Big-time sports leagues reportedly want legal sportsbooks to pay an “integrity tax.” Tribute for existing to be bet on, is a better description. But Las Vegas has never paid that, so a precedent has been set.
Will bookmakers want betting windows placed in sports stadiums, as with English soccer? That's one way leagues could cash in.
Hockey could have to make an interesting adjustment when betting on sports is legalized nationwide.
Instead of concealing the severity of injuries, hockey might adopt the NFL's designations: Questionable, doubtful and out. The secrecy of “upper body,” “lower body,” “day-to-day” and “week-to-week” will be history. Hiding things from the opposition will pale next to an industry that rakes in billions.
Or it won't. The NHL might choose to remain petty and backward, which are too often league specialties.
Announcers might openly talk about point spreads instead of making veiled references. Brent Musburger was famous for those. Musburger is known to wager. He now lives in Las Vegas and hosts a radio/TV show on sports gambling. Musburger may be happier now than he was with CBS or ESPN.
But really, the widespread legalization of sports betting won't change much.
Gamblers will still bet on sports. But now, big business and the government get their cut. That may be the only significant tangible difference.
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).

Friday, May 18, 2018

Confessions of a Marc-Andre Fleury fanboy


By Tim Benz
May 17, 2018

Vegas Golden Knights goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury makes a save against the Winnipeg Jets during the third period of Game 3 of the NHL hockey playoffs Western Conference finals, Wednesday, May 16, 2018, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

I've been called a Marc-Andre Fleury "honk." A "Flower Fanboy." A "media friend of MAF."
I've also been called a helluva lot worse. Probably 100 times today. Check my Twitter mentions.
Sports journalism should be fair. Not antiseptic. Especially if you are on the opinion-giving end of the business. If you can't allow yourself to express a little extra happiness for players who deserve it when they succeed, then you're cheating the fans who should have that element of the story conveyed.
Frankly, a lot of those tags regarding my opinions of Fleury are true. I was a fan of his on and off the ice. Maybe more than any athlete I've covered. When media people tell you they "don't have favorites," they are lying. Maybe to themselves.
In the sports media, playing favorites is wrong. Having favorites, though, is human nature.
So now that Fleury has become the feel-good story of the 2018 playoffs in Las Vegas, I'm unashamed to say I'm loving every minute.
If I did play favorites, I'd conveniently write the Penguins screwed up by letting him go to Vegas and they kept the wrong goalie in Matt Murray.
Well, take this as a confession from a "Fleury fanboy." I still think the Penguins kept the right goalie.
If Fleury goes on to win the Stanley Cup this year — and maybe in future seasons — I'll revise that statement.
I'm not going to revise history, though. Others are doing that.
I've been sitting on this take for a while, but I truly believe that the Penguins messed up by protecting Murray over Fleury
Pittsburgh should've kept Fleury -- who is off to the conference finals. @GoldenKnights gain I guess.
Fleury is a better goalie than Murray. Pens chose the wrong one. End up of story. Good night.
You could have protected Fleury and gave up Matt Murray. It's not the Golden Knights fault the Pens made the wrong choice.
On the series-ending goal by , it was a gem. But would have stopped it. blew it. Half-baked goaltending on the winner.
I know the age differential, but fleury is far better than Murray. That was the wrong call by Pitt.
No, Murray wasn't as stellar as he had been in previous playoffs. His regular season was derailed by injury and the death of his father. His glove remained questionable, his usual sound positioning wasn't as solid, and his uncanny anticipation wasn't what we've come to know.
Murray committed the criminal act of being the second-best goalie in a playoff series. Ask Fleury how that goes over with the public in this town.
Meanwhile, Fleury has been even better during this playoff run for the Golden Knights than he was last season in place of Murray. Fleury's goals-against average, record, save percentage and shutout total are all better than what they were through three games of the conference finals.
That's when he got benched for Murray in 2017, with many — myself included — touting him as the Penguins' Conn Smythe favorite to that point.
As a result, a segment of the fan base is saying if Fleury had stayed and Murray would've been let go, the Penguins would've beaten the Capitals.
I get the premise that Fleury, being the more athletic of the two goalies and playing at top form, might have done a better job against some of those odd-man rushes Washington enjoyed.
If you could magically transpose Fleury's performance while breaking the space-time continuum, then yes, the Penguins would've beaten the Capitals.
All that's great for Fleury, and I hope he wins the Cup again.
None of that means Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford should've kept him instead of Murray. Anyone you hear shouting that at a bar, on social media or on the bus is either using hindsight and mouthing off, or never has been in a position of making a big-picture decision.
There isn't a general manager in the world who would've cut ties with a 23-year-old goalie who was 6 for 6 in playoff series with two Cups under his belt for a 32-year-old who had two years left on his contract.
That was a contract, by the way, which was $2 million more than Murray's and included no-trade language. Keep in mind, the Penguins were so tight against the cap that even with those savings, they still had to let the likes of Ron Hainsey, Chris Kunitz, Matt Cullen, Trevor Daley and Nick Bonino walk away in the offseason.
The ultimate cop-out cliche in the sports opinion game is: Time will tell.
Time will tell if Murray has another Cup run in him. I think he does. Patrick Roy needed six seasons before he won a second title after getting one during his first year. How about giving this kid a few more kicks at the can to see if he can earn a third, eh?
Time already has told us the Penguins gave away a great goalie with plenty left in the tank.
And we don't need time to tell us the Penguins used the right logic in making the decision they did, even if the result looks questionable in its first 10 months.
Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at tbenz@tribweb.com or via Twitter @TimBenzPGH.