Merci, Marc-Andre

Marc-Andre Fleury

Courtesy of Bruce Bennett | Getty Images

Bry McDermott | Asst. Photo Editor

On June 21, 2003, the Pittsburgh Penguins selected Marc-Andre Fleury first overall in the NHL Draft — just the third goalie in history to be taken at No. 1. On June 21, 2017, Fleury was picked by the Vegas Knights in the NHL Expansion Draft, leaving the Steel City for Sin City after exactly 14 years with the Penguins organization.

While my heart aches — as I’m sure many other Pens fans’ hearts do, as well — I know that this is the right thing for Fleury.

In 14 years, Fleury started 667 regular season games, totalling 39,771 minutes. He posted 375 wins and 44 shutouts — third among active netminders. He’s a two-time All-Star and three-time Stanley Cup Champion, all while wearing the Black & Gold.

But seeing Fleury in a Golden Knights jersey is a lot less painful than watching him sit on the bench.

‘Flower,’ as he’s been nicknamed by fans for the French translation of his last name, started just 34 games during the 2016-17 regular season, and that number may be higher than originally planned due to injuries to teammate and fellow netminder Matt Murray.

Fleury’s departure from Pittsburgh has been in the minds of Penguins fans for over a year now, ever since Murray stepped in net after Fleury suffered a concussion at the end of the 2015-16 regular season and led the team to a Stanley Cup.

Murray is the future of the Penguins. He’s 23 years old and a two-time Stanley Cup champion as a rookie. There’s no denying he’s a fantastic goaltender. This team is now his to lead, and Fleury made that clear as he handed the Cup to Murray after the Pens won their second-consecutive championship — a sort of passing of the torch.

But Fleury still has a few great seasons left of his own to guide his new team to victory in Las Vegas. I think that his play during the first two rounds of the playoffs this past season are proof of that.

As a 32-year-old backup netminder, he outshined two Vezina trophy finalists in Sergei Bobrovsky of the Columbus Blue Jackets and Braden Holtby of the Washington Capitals. In 15 games, he defeated the No. 1 and No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference, while posting two shutouts and a .924 save percentage. That speaks volumes about the talent Fleury still exudes.

Fleury still deserves to play, and that is not going to happen here in Pittsburgh.

I’ll never forget receiving my very first Penguins jersey — a hand-me-down Flower sweater from my older brother when I was 10-years-old. I’ve been a fan ever since, and I’ll cheer him on no matter what jersey he wears. A lot of other fans feel the same. All that matters is that he’s playing and continues to love the sport with every ounce of his being.

So, instead of being upset with the Las Vegas expansion team, coaches or even Fleury for choosing to waive his no-movement clause (NMC) to allow this all to happen, let’s be thankful we got to share so many memories with one of best human beings to be a professional athlete.

As much as Pens fans will remember Fleury’s epic diving save on Nicklas Lidstrom with .3 seconds left in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final in 2009 to defeat the Detroit Red Wings, they are also going to remember Flower’s contagious smile and light-hearted personality.

Fans are going to remember Fleury doing cartwheels in the locker room in full gear or the time he put Mark Letestu and Ben Lovejoy’s hotel furniture in the hallway during a team trip to Buffalo or when he skated onto the ice wearing a Pittsburgh Steelers helmet and waving a Terrible Towel.

They’re going to remember the yellow pads in Mellon Arena, his appreciation taps and kisses to the posts after big saves and the grace that he showed as his starting job was given to a younger goalie.

Fans are going to remember that Fleury chose to wave his NMC, allowing Pittsburgh to protect Murray in the Expansion Draft and put the team in a position to succeed long after Flower hangs up his skates.

And fans are going to remember that in his final months as a Penguin, he and his wife took the time to co-finance and help build a playground and other equipment for a local Pittsburgh Boys & Girls Club.

That’s just the type of person Fleury is — utterly selfless.

Fleury embodies what it means to not only be a good teammate, but a great human being. Pittsburgh will forever be in debt to the Flower, and, if we’re lucky, he’ll make his way back to the Steel City in the future.

Merci, La Fleur. It’s been a pleasure watching you bloom.

Take care of him, Vegas.

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