Mark Madden: Remember when Penguins were packed with goaltenders?
The Penguins were flush with goaltenders after winning a second straight Stanley Cup in 2017.
Matt Murray had just won his second ring. Marc-Andre Fleury had just won his third and, unlike 2016, played a major role in the ‘17 playoffs.
The Penguins also had Tristan Jarry, a second-round pick in 2013, and Filip Gustavsson, a second-round pick in 2016.
But, as this is written, their starting goalie is an undrafted free agent.
What the heck happened?
It’s nothing general manager Jim Rutherford could have seen coming.
When the Penguins exposed Fleury in the 2017 expansion draft in favor of retaining Murray, Rutherford did what every single GM in hockey history would have: Kept the goaltender who was nine years younger, got paid $2 million less and had a stellar recent track record.
A few media pundits and fans said then (and continue to say) that they would have kept Fleury because, Murray’s performance duly noted, Fleury was still the superior goaltender and the remainder of his prime would coincide with the Penguins’ window to win more Cups.
That was (and is) a reasonable point of view, and may be in the process of being proven correct (though Fleury’s current stats with Vegas are worse than last season’s).
But, in Rutherford’s shoes, not one person with a respectable hockey IQ would have made any decision but the one Rutherford did.
But the “right” decision doesn’t always work out.
Murray is a mess. His goals-against average is in the stratosphere, his save percentage is in the basement and he’s on the shelf with his ninth injury since making his NHL debut in December 2015.
Murray’s prevailing hurt is said to be lower-body and, said coach Mike Sullivan, “longer term,” although its cause and exact nature are even more of a mystery than hockey injuries usually are.
Murray was healthy enough to serve as Casey DeSmith’s backup during Wednesday’s 5-1 victory over Dallas at PPG Paints Arena. Murray reportedly expected to start that night.
Murray didn’t get hit in the head during warm-up. He showed zero sign of infirmity in the locker room after. Did he slip on spilled stuffing come Thanksgiving?
Or is Murray’s “injury” a way to finagle a “rehabilitation assignment” with the Penguins’ Wilkes-Barre/Scranton farm team without humiliating him, preceded by some time off to clear his head?
That’s unlikely, but easy to imagine considering Murray hasn’t lived up to his billing since Fleury left. Did Murray benefit from the competition and/or Fleury’s counseling?
At any rate, DeSmith is now the starter, and might have been that even before Murray was proclaimed injured — though Sullivan said, after the Penguins beat Dallas, that Murray was still his No. 1 goalie.
Right, despite DeSmith starting five of the last seven games.
Jarry has been summoned from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to take Murray’s place on the roster. Jarry scored a goal last week. Heading into the Penguins visit to Boston on Friday, that gave him one more goal than Daniel Sprong and the same amount as Bryan Rust and Riley Sheahan.
Gustavsson (remember him?) left the organization in last season’s trade that fetched Derick Brassard (remember him?) from Ottawa.
So, in June 2017, the Penguins goaltenders were Murray and Fleury.
Seventeen months later, they are DeSmith and Jarry.
To repeat: What the heck happened?
It’s difficult to believe DeSmith can get the Penguins to where they want to go. Even the playoffs seem no guarantee right now.
But DeSmith’s numbers don’t lie: His goals-against is 2.39, ninth in the NHL among goalies with 10 or more starts. His save percentage is .924, also ranking ninth. DeSmith passes the eye test, too: He looks composed, consistent and comfortable even if he can barely get on the big kids’ rides at Kennywood.
• DeSmith has far outperformed Murray this season.
• Murray has been in decline since Fleury left. Has he flashed back into his pan like notable one-hit wonders Jim Carey and Steve Penney?
• Jarry got beat out by DeSmith at this year’s training camp.
• Gustavsson is playing with Ottawa’s American Hockey League farm team, and not well: 3.87 goals-against average, .884 save percentage.
• Fleury’s stats aren’t as good as last year’s.
It has been an eventful 17 months re: Anything connected to Penguins goaltending.
Final thought: Murray has big-time talent. There is no substitute. Patience and faith are required. But at what cost?
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).