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The first time Greg Malone saw Marc-Andre Fleury play, it made a lasting impression.
Malone, a member of the Penguins' front office from 1998-2006 and the team's head scout for 16 years, visited a rink in Quebec to check out a teenage goaltender who was a candidate to go first overall in the 2003 draft.
Before the game started, Fleury already stood out.
“Watching him in warm-up, he was having fun,” Malone recalled. “Hanging on to the puck, shooting it against the boards. It was different. Most goalies just go in there. He was having fun.”
Once the puck dropped, so did Malone's jaw.
“He faced like 70 shots, and they ended up winning,” Malone said. “I couldn't believe how quick he was. First time seeing him, it was like, ‘Whoa.' I said to (former Penguins goalie coach Gilles Meloche), ‘I don't think I have to see him in any more games.' ”
Indeed he didn't. The Penguins traded up from the third spot and selected Fleury with the first overall pick in the draft.
That's how the popular goaltender's tenure with the Penguins began.
How it will end is the subject of great conjecture.
Fleury has fallen behind 22-year-old Matt Murray on the team's goaltending depth chart. At age 32, Fleury is no longer the carefree kid flinging pucks off the boards at a Quebec junior hockey rink, but he's not ready to assume a role as a veteran mentor who plays only a couple of times a month, either.
That means the most likely end game is a trade, whether it comes before Wednesday's NHL trade deadline or sometime this summer.
General manager Jim Rutherford said all season he would prefer to keep both goaltenders through the end of the playoffs for depth purposes, but he would always keep Fleury's wishes in mind. In an interview with the NHL Network on Friday, Rutherford said he had yet to receive an offer for Fleury, but acknowledged the veteran goaltender would “like to get playing.” The GM said a decision would be made in the 48 hours before the deadline.
For a number of reasons, trading Fleury in the next two days wouldn't be the easiest transaction Rutherford has ever completed.
• Fleury makes $5.75 million per season with two more years left on his deal. More than half the league's 30 teams are within $3 million of the salary cap. Sometimes, it's hard to make the math work.
• Fleury's no-movement clause reportedly allows him to list 18 teams he may be traded to. Outside of that, Fleury would have to waive to make the deal happen.
• If the Penguins trade Fleury, they'd have to add a veteran back-up. Handing that job to 21-year-old prospect Tristan Jarry would not be an ideal situation for a contending team.
• Most importantly, demand for goalies in the trade market is believed to be weak.
After the offseason signing of Brian Elliott to a three-year, $7.5 million deal didn't work as planned, Calgary is thought to be looking at goaltending options. With underperforming, well-paid veterans Antti Niemi and Kari Lehtonen making up its goaltending tandem, Dallas is a strong candidate for an upgrade at the position too.
There are other teams with potential goaltending issues — Ottawa, Philadelphia, Carolina, St. Louis and Winnipeg, to name five — but they haven't been linked to trade talks at the position in any meaningful way. In fact, it's perfectly reasonable to predict no team will add a No. 1 goalie before the trade deadline.
But if there's a will, there's a way, of course. So a Fleury trade before Wednesday can't be ruled out. If it does happen, the goaltender has already enjoyed a pretty good send-off from an adoring fan base.
Fans chanted Fleury's name as he made 44 saves to help the Penguins to a 4-3 overtime victory over Winnipeg on Feb. 16 in what might have been his final home game at PPG Paints Arena.
“The support here is always amazing,” Fleury said. “You don't know what's coming. It was a nice feeling.”
Notes: The rating for Saturday night's Stadium Series game was a 16.3 in Pittsburgh, NBC Sports announced, making it one of the five most-watched regular-season games on the network in the market. The rating in Philadelphia was a 5.1. Nationally, it was a 1.18. … Philadelphia's Brandon Manning will have a disciplinary meeting with the NHL department of player safety Monday for his hit to the head of Penguins winger Jake Guentzel on Saturday night.
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter at @BombulieTrib.
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