Marc-Andre Fleury's stay in the NHL is over.

The Pittsburgh Penguins are returning their rookie goaltender to the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, the NHL club confirmed Thursday.

"Marc's disappointed; it's his dream to play in the NHL," said Penguins head coach Ed Olczyk.

"He has proven he can play here and deserves to play here.

"It's a tough decision, but it's the right decision. He has a chance to go win a Memorial Cup. The more he plays and the more he learns, the better he's going to be."

Fleury will back up goaltender Jean-Sebastien Aubin against the Tampa Bay Lightning Thursday before joining the Eagles on Friday.

Fleury, who led Canada to two consecutive silver medals at the world junior hockey championship, was chosen first overall by Pittsburgh in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft.

The 19-year-old signed a lucrative, performance-laden deal with the Penguins prior to the start of the season, including an incentive that would give him $3 million US in bonuses if he reached the 25-game mark in his first season.

Going into Thursday's game in Tampa, Fleury had played 21 games although two don't count for contract purposes because he played fewer than 20 minutes in each.

"Certainly finances are in the back of our minds all the time," said general manager Craig Patrick when asked if money was a factor in the cash-strapped Penguins' decision to demote Fleury.

"We can't afford to lose a lot of money, but we just felt for a 19-year-old kid, it's best for him to get back into his own element with his peers and try to win some championships which we think is important for development."

Fleury has a 4-14-2 record, a 3.64 goals-against average and .896 save percentage in 21 games so far this year. He has dropped 11 of his last 12 contests.

That's a far cry from his respectable 2-2-2 record with a 1.96 GAA and a .943 save percentage in October.

Fleury's current record hasn't been helped by the Penguins' problems both on and off the ice.

Pittsburgh has struggled to put a competitive product on the ice this season and as a result sit last in the NHL standings.

Captain Mario Lemieux's season-ending hip injury hasn't helped matters, nor has the club's financial troubles over the past few years. The Penguins management has been forced to trade away talented veterans in exchange for future picks or developing players.

With the option of using a three-goaltender rotation in Fleury, Aubin and Sebastien Caron, the Penguins agreed to loan Fleury to Team Canada for the 2004 world junior hockey championship in Finland.

The move was considered a strategic one – a move that would restore Fleury's confidence and give him an opportunity to win a gold medal.

But things didn't exactly roll in Fleury's favour in Helsinki. His clearing attempt late in the third period of the championship game deflected off a teammate and into his own net for the deciding goal and a 4-3 loss to the United States. The Americans came back from a 3-1 deficit to win their first world junior title.

Fleury has also struggled since returning to the NHL. In his first game back, he gave up four third-period goals in just over five minutes in a 4-2 loss to Minnesota on Jan. 16.

He was pulled after allowing six goals in two periods of a 6-5 loss to Ottawa on Jan. 22, but has since rebounded to play some of his best hockey since the opening month of the season.

Pittsburgh coach Eddie Olczyk praised Fleury's play in a recent 5-3 loss to the Colorado Avalanche in which the young netminder made 28 saves.

Notes:

  • In order to earn his $3 million bonus, Fleury would need to reach six specifications: a 3.25 GAA, .890 save percentage, 20 victories, four shutouts, 1,800 minutes played and a top-five finish in the Calder Trophy voting.

    with files from Canadian Press