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World juniors first step in cost-savings

PITTSBURGH -- By next week, Pittsburgh Penguins rookie
goalie Marc-Andre Fleury could be a man with two teams.

One would love to have him. The other isn't certain it can
afford him.

The more the NHL's No. 1 draft pick plays, the more he makes.
Once he's played at least one period in 25 games, $3 million in
contract bonuses kick in. That's a large price for the cash-poor
Penguins to pay for what essentially amounts to a season's worth of
on-the-job training.

That's why the Penguins are weighing whether to allow Fleury to
join the Canadian national junior team for the Dec. 26-Jan. 5 world
championships in Finland. The Penguins have until Dec. 11 to make
up their minds.

"We have to make tough decisions along the way," team
president Ken Sawyer said. "I don't know if Fleury's going to
spend the rest of the season here or go back to juniors. We haven't
made that decision yet. But, in part, it will be a financial
issue."

Fleury has been anything but a disappointment to the Penguins
despite a recent six-game losing streak. His statistics (.912 save
percentage, 3.08 goals-against average) are excellent for a
19-year-old who labors behind an inexperienced and often leaky
defense. His four victories are as many as Stanley Cup MVP
Jean-Sebastien Giguere has for Anaheim.

If they let Fleury go to the Canadian national junior team, the Penguins
would have nearly a month to decide if he should rejoin them or
return to his junior team in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, for the rest
of the season.

Playing in the same championships he starred in last season
would allow Fleury to play in a competitive environment, away from
the pressures of a league where the talent-thin Penguins are
overmatched almost nightly. Fleury has faced a league-high average
of 32 shots per game.

But Fleury has strongly stated a preference to stay in the NHL
and develop his game against most of the world's top players. He
told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette he would be even willing to forgo
the $3 million in bonuses.

"I love it here," Fleury said. "At first, I wasn't sure if I
could make the team. Now I'm playing, and I'm really happy with all
of this."

The Penguins no doubt appreciate his gesture, even though such
an in-season contract renegotiating is virtually unprecedented for
a rookie. Also, the NHL Players Association would likely oppose
such a move because it could affect future negotiations with high
draft choices.

So, amid all their other troubles, the Penguins must decide
whether to pay Fleury or play him elsewhere. The team projects
losses of $5 million this season, not including Fleury's possible
bonuses.

If they send him back to the wearying road trips of junior
hockey, the Penguins risk alienating the player they intend to
build their franchise around. But Sawyer said Fleury will make a
lot of money during his three-year contract even if he doesn't
immediately collect on his incentives; his salary, even without any
bonuses, is $1.24 million.

"We know he's going to be a great goaltender for us for a long,
long time," Sawyer said. "I would expect he would understand what
our situation is here right now."

Fleury does, but he's also grown to like playing in the NHL, and
he is uncertain how leaving the team would make him a better
goaltender. If he goes back to Cape Breton, he can return to the
Penguins this season only in an emergency.