It seems as if Marc-Andre Fleury became the Wild’s starting goalie in a flash. Acquired at the traded deadline last March, he was starting in the postseason in May. Now it’s pretty much Fleury or bust as Minnesota tries to improve on a franchise-best regular season.
And he turns 38 on Nov. 28.
On the first day of training camp Thursday at TRIA Rink, coach Dean Evason tried to nip concerns about Fleury’s age in the bud.
“There is talk,” he acknowledged, “about, ‘Oh, he’s an older goaltender.’ C’mon, he’s an elite athlete. I don’t care what his age is, he’s in incredible shape. Mentally he’s 19 years old, the way he conducts himself.”
Fleury won’t suit up when the Wild begin their preseason slate with an afternoon puck drop at Xcel Energy Center on Sunday, or perhaps in any of the team’s six exhibition games. But when the regular season begins Oct. 13 against the New York Rangers, he will, barring injury, be the man between the pipes.
That’s the way he likes it. Fleury would play every game if allowed.
“I guess I like to play. They say, ‘You play,’ I play,” Fleury said. “Unless maybe I’m hurt or something, but other than that, I like playing.”
It was fairly clear the Wild were transitioning from Cam Talbot to Fleury in net the moment Fleury, a Stanley Cup veteran acquired at the March 21 trade deadline, was given the reins for Minnesota’s first-round playoff series, starting the first four games before being replaced by Talbot for Game 5.
It became crystal clear Minnesota was transitioning to Fleury when general manager Bill Guerin signed Fleury to a two-year, $7 million contract the first week of July. A week later, the transition was complete when Guerin traded Talbot, with a year left on his contract, to Ottawa for 24-year-old backup Filip Gustavson.
The net, for all intents and purposes, belongs to Fleury.
“I was fine with coming back with Cam, too, right? I got along great with him,” Fleury said as camp began this week. “Great guy. Was very supportive off the ice, too. We spent a bunch of time together, too. I was ready to share the load with him, but things didn’t work out, and (I’m) 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. Looking forward to it.”
Exactly how much that will be, Evason contends, no one knows.
“We’re not throwing a number out there, right?” the head coach said. “It’s not like, ‘OK, Marc-Andre Fleury’s going to play in ‘x’ amount of games.’ We don’t know, right? We don’t know.”
At the very least, the drama surrounding the goaltending has dissipated. Before the trade deadline, Talbot said he and his teammates would just as soon start the postseason with the team they started the season with. And while Fleury and Talbot split time down the regular-season stretch, the tandem became an issue as the Wild’s first-round playoff series against the St. Louis Blues was set.
It became inflamed after a 4-0 loss in Game 1 and grew infernal during the July 8 draft after Talbot’s agent, George Bazos, released a statement saying his client wasn’t pleased that Guerin had re-upped Fleury. Guerin responded that he wanted both goalies back but a week later traded Talbot to Ottawa.
“We spoke after,” Fleury said of his former teammate. “I think he wanted to explain his side of things a bit. It’s fine. I have respect for him, and it’s OK.”
Fleury, meanwhile, has moved his family to Minnesota and is ready to go. Although he made 11 regular-season starts over a month in St. Paul, he only practiced twice with his new club until this week. Veteran defenseman Matt Dumba said Friday that isn’t an excuse for the team’s 4-2 series loss to the Blues, but Fleury said real practice time, and extra attention to personnel details, is important.
“I just think the more we play, the more we practice together, the more I see them and they see me, I think we’ll have better chemistry,” he said.
Gustavson only has only 23 NHL starts under his belt, going 10-13-0 with a 3.15 goals-against average and .905 save percentage. Fleury has made 165 starts in just the playoffs, and in 2020-21 backstopped Vegas into the Western Conference final. It’s no secret that the Wild would like Fleury to play as many games as possible.
“He does have a youthful energy,” Guerin said. “It’s pretty amazing.”
Still, he added, the team goes into the season knowing it must manage Fleury’s workload in some capacity; if not because he’s almost 38, to have him ready for what the team wants to be a long postseason run.
“It’s our job to communicate with (him) and make sure that we’re in line on what the schedule’s going to be and his workload and all that stuff,” Guerin said. “He gets it. He’s professional. … Everybody wants to play. You just want to play every single game, and he’s no different. We just have to manage it.”