Tim Benz: Do the ‘Jimmy Howard to the Pens’ rumors make any sense? |
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Tim Benz: Do the ‘Jimmy Howard to the Pens’ rumors make any sense?

Tim Benz
Tony Gutierrez/AP
Detroit Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard (35) is shown during an NHL hockey game against the Dallas Stars in Dallas, Sunday, Feb. 17, 2008.

Do the trade rumors connecting the Pittsburgh Penguins to Detroit Red Wings goaltender Jimmy Howard make any sense?

Yes. But only if the Penguins are giving up on Matt Murray.

Then the question becomes, “Should the Penguins give up on Murray?”

And that answer is, “No!”

We should begin by taking a look at the story itself. TSN’s Frank Seravalli writes that the St. Louis Blues have inquired about the notion of trading for Howard. He went on to state:

“The Pittsburgh Penguins are very much in ‘win now’ mode, are believed to have interest, and, unlike the Blues, the Pens have a first-round pick to dangle.”

He then ranked five goalies who may be traded. He listed Howard third behind, you guessed it, Matt Murray.

A lot to absorb there, I know. Let’s get through some specifics.

Howard is going to be 35 years old in March. He’s in the last year of a contract that pays him $5.3 million.

Matt Murray is 24. He’ll make $3.75 million this year and next year. Then he is a restricted free agent.

We know Murray is currently on the shelf with what the team is calling a “lower-body” injury. His numbers this year are bad. In 11 starts, he is just 4-5-1. He has a poor .877 save percentage and an equally ugly 4.08 GAA.

Meanwhile, Howard is playing well on a Detroit team that was projected to be one of the worst in hockey, yet suddenly has as many points (25) as the Penguins do.

His record is only 7-6-3. Although four of those losses came in games where he only allowed two goals or less. He boasts a .922 save percentage and GAA of 2.68.

While Murray is out, the Penguins are platooning Tristan Jarry (0-1-1/.887/3.50) and Casey DeSmith (6-3-3/.924/2.41). DeSmith’s deal is only worth $650,000. He’s unrestricted after this season. And Jarry is restricted after 2020 with a cap hit of $675,000 this year and next.

If the Wings decide to deal Howard, they also have 30-year-old Jonathan Bernier under contract through 2021. To buffer Bernier, they’ll likely want one of those three Penguins goaltenders in exchange for Howard along with draft-pick compensation.

If that demand is a first rounder, as Seravalli suggests, the Penguins shouldn’t do it. Howard would be a rental. That’s too much in exchange for a player that will potentially be gone in July.

Furthermore, the last Penguins first-round picks to make the NHL were Olli Maatta and Derrick Pouliot from the 2012 draft. They’ve had just one first-round selection (Kasperi Kapanen) since then. It’s time to begin lacing the farm system with some top-end talent.

Beyond that, we need to look at the basic logic of such a move.

Even if the Penguins do acquire Howard for lesser return than a first-round pick, and he succeeds here, what happens after that?

Retaining both Murray and Howard to begin 2019-’20 would be unlikely.

With the Penguins current cap situation, they are unlikely to keep Howard long-term. If he excels in Pittsburgh and then hits free agency, he could probably demand at least double what Murray will be making next year. That would be too much for the goalie position to keep them both, given what Jim Rutherford could be spending in 2019-’20 on some combination of the current threesome.

There’s only one way to hold Howard beyond this spring, assuming one of the two backups — and not Murray — is sent to Detroit in return this season. That option would mean dealing Murray in the summer, thus clearing space to keep Howard and the remaining backup.

Otherwise, in terms of the cap hit, the Penguins would have been better off trying to keep both Murray and Marc-Andre Fleury on a mega-goalie allocation. That seems to be an awfully expensive goaltending ticket.

I’m not ready to jettison Matt Murray yet. Those two Stanley Cup seasons are too close in my mind. He’s usually better in the postseason than he is in the regular season. I’m willing to put faith in the idea he’ll come back to the Penguins at some point this year and be better if the team qualifies for the playoffs. His track record gives me reason to believe that.

And if I’m wrong? Well, Howard is good, but he’s not Ken Dryden. Rutherford can find another Jimmy Howard-type next year. This move doesn’t have to happen in 2018-’19.

I know the Penguins are in “win now” mode. A hot version of Howard would likely give the organization a better chance of doing that than an injury-plagued Murray — or a platoon of two kids that have never been full-time starters.

But that’s assuming the absolute best of Howard, who has never seen a Conference Final. It’s also assuming the absolute worst of Murray, who has piloted this team to two Stanley Cups.

I’m not prepared to assume either.

Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tim at [email protected] or via Twitter @TimBenzPGH. All tweets could be reposted. All emails are subject to publication unless specified otherwise.

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