Mark Madden: Penguins need a 1-A type backup as insurance for Matt Murray |
Mark Madden, Columnist

Mark Madden: Penguins need a 1-A type backup as insurance for Matt Murray

Mark Madden
Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Matt Murray , makes a stop during an NHL hockey game against the Carolina Hurricanes in Pittsburgh, Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Penguins GM Jim Rutherford might be done dealing after acquiring forwards Nick Bjugstad and Jared McCann from Florida on Feb 1.

But he probably isn’t.

Tweaking the roster is in Rutherford’s blood. He’s changed a quarter of his team since season’s start.

That’s no complaint. The results speak for themselves. It’s not about winning every trade. It’s about building your team. Rutherford corrects his mistakes. The ego of many GMs doesn’t allow for that.

So as the Feb. 25 NHL trade deadline races closer, here’s a suggestion for Rutherford: Get another goalie. Detroit’s Jimmy Howard leaps to mind. Perhaps Chicago’s Cam Ward. Each would be a rental.

That’s no knock on incumbent Matt Murray. He’s got a champion’s resume.

Murray has been streaky this season, but when he’s on, he’s brilliant. Witness just 10 goals conceded in eight games Dec. 15-Jan. 8, with eight wins and two shutouts. His lifetime playoff save percentage is .923, his playoff goals-against average 2.08.

Marc-Andre Fleury’s popularity in Pittsburgh makes the debate constant, but Rutherford did right when he kept Murray and let Fleury go to Vegas in the 2017 expansion draft. That’s taking into account Fleury’s legit Vezina candidacy this season.

Murray can do it all … except stay healthy. He’s too often hurt.

Murray’s most recent knock (unspecified upper body, not a concussion) marks the 10th time he has been injured since making his NHL debut in December 2015. That’s an amazing figure. Murray has been concussed three times.

Murray is (and should remain) the Penguins’ No. 1 goaltender.

But the Penguins need — next season, if not immediately — a No. 1-A. They need a goalie who can assume a No. 1’s workload if Murray is hurt, especially in the playoffs.

Casey DeSmith doesn’t fit that description.

The Penguins need a setup like Boston’s: Tuukka Rask is the No. 1, and Jaroslav Halak is close behind. Each has played half the games. Each has performed well.

But the Penguins like DeSmith. Goaltending coach Mike Buckley worked with DeSmith at the University of New Hampshire. The Penguins rewarded DeSmith’s solid play with a three-year, $3.75 million contract extension in January.

DeSmith is a capable backup, a No. 2. But is he a 1-A? Can DeSmith win a bunch of games in a row during the playoffs? Can he beat Washington in a best-of-seven?

Perhaps that’s an unfair request. Murray lost that second-round series to Washington last year, and any goalie acquired would offer no guarantees.

Perhaps the point will be moot. Perhaps the Penguins will miss the playoffs.

A glance at their roster says they shouldn’t.

A glance at the standings says they might.

There isn’t one major thing wrong with the Penguins. But looking impotent and lethargic in three straight losses doesn’t lie, nor does their record: 28 wins and 26 losses. (Overtime/shootout defeats are still just that, defeats.) The Penguins rarely look like their talent dictates they should.

Evgeni Malkin is hurt but hasn’t played near his full capabilities since October.

Patric Hornqvist doesn’t have a point in seven games. Maybe coach Mike Sullivan’s attempt to make Hornqvist into a third-liner finally has succeeded.

Dominik Simon has one goal in 13 games. Sullivan’s attempt to make Simon into a top-six forward is failing.

Whenever the foe scores, Jack Johnson is frequently in close proximity. The defenseman is minus-8, and his fancy stats are extremely damning.

The new guys from Florida are just as mediocre as the old guys the Penguins sent to Florida. (Although, mercifully, neither Bjugstad nor McCann trips over his lower lip like Derick Brassard did.)

It’s easy to assume the Penguins will kick it into gear when they need to. But they had better kick it into gear now, or they could wind up on the outside looking in.

Murray could be the Penguins’ savior when he returns. His December/January hot streak occurred immediately upon coming back from injury.

But if the Penguins are to yet maximize their season, Murray needs to stay healthy. The only ability Murray too often lacks is availability. A stronger backup provides peace of mind, at the very least.

Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).