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Penguins’ Matt Murray intrigued by limiting practice time

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Penguins goaltender Matt Murray stops Maple Leafs center Zach Hyman during the second period Thursday, Oct. 18, 2018.

When a professional baseball team needs to get a relief pitcher ready, it doesn’t send the starting catcher or even his backup out to the bullpen to warm him up.

That’s the bullpen catcher’s job. His primary purpose for being on the payroll is to perform a task that prevents wear and tear on the team’s regulars.

There’s a small but growing sentiment in NHL circles that professional hockey teams should operate in much the same way when it comes to goaltending. That is, they should hire practice goalies to stand in net for daily drills, freeing up the starter and maybe his backup to prepare for games in other ways.

This would serve two purposes.

First, it would limit wear and tear on goaltenders and might even prevent an injury or two. Penguins goalie Matt Murray has suffered two concussions in practice in the past eight months.

Second, it would allow goaltenders to work on drills specific to their position while the rest of the team practices.

Murray finds the idea intriguing.

He doesn’t chalk up his practice concussions to anything but bad luck, but the idea of not dropping into the butterfly hundreds of times once January or February rolls around sounds appealing.

“The wear and tear, it’s definitely there, for sure,” Murray said. “When you’re going up and down so many times, it’s tough on the hips. It’s tough on the knees. Practice is definitely a challenge for goalies, both mentally and physically.”

He also noted many practice drills aren’t designed with a goaltender in mind. For instance, when in a game will Murray see a succession of two-on-none rushes coming at him for minutes at a time?

“It’s not geared to goalies whatsoever,” Murray said. “Every shot is Grade A, right down the middle. That’s great to challenge yourself and to work on, but there’s so many other parts of the game you don’t get to work on in practice.”

To fix that problem, Murray and Casey DeSmith have begun taking the ice about 20 minutes before practice with goalie coach Mike Buckley this season.

“That’s when we work on our real goalie stuff that you obviously need to work on to stay sharp,” Murray said.

As with any potential change this radical, there are objections.

Coach Mike Sullivan said he and the coaching staff are careful to monitor the workload of goalies and will encourage them to take time off if necessary. He also said he believes some aspects of practice are crucial for goaltenders.

“There’s a lot involved for a goaltender,” Sullivan said. “It’s reading the play. It has that aspect of the game that he has an opportunity to practice at and get repetitions. It’s making saves. It’s fighting through traffic to find the puck. In my mind, there’s a lot a goaltender can gain through the practice environment.”

Center Riley Sheahan said he thinks shooting on No. 1 goalies is an integral part of practice for forwards and defensemen.

“I want to be shooting on the best goalies possible,” he said. “I think that’s how you learn their tendencies and where hot spots are to shoot. I think if you’re shooting against goalies that aren’t top notch, you’d be missing out on something.”

Defenseman Jack Johnson suggested if the same logic applied to goaltenders in this case were applied to the rest of the team, practice as a concept would cease to exist.

“Do forwards need to go in there and grind against the ‘D’ every practice? Do we need to practice penalty killing and get hit by shots? Yeah, you need to practice it,” Johnson said. “I think the wear and tear of a season, that’s just professional sports.”

Follow the Pittsburgh Penguins all season long.

Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan at [email protected] or via Twitter @BombulieTrib.

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