The Elephant in the Room: The Goaltending Situation

In case you have been living under a rock, the NHL will be expanding to Las Vegas next season.  As with previous expansions, a draft will be held and present NHL teams will be forced to expose a certain group of players per these rules.  One way or another, every team will protect at least one of their goaltenders, and players with limited/no-movement clauses are required to be protected.  Long story short, if things stay the way they are now, the Pittsburgh Penguins have to protect veteran Marc-Andre Fleury, leaving up-and-comer Matt Murray to be possibly snatched up by the new Las Vegas franchise.  Judging by the totally-cool-but-incredibly-tedious Expansion Draft Tool, the Penguins are not alone in having a challenging goaltending decision to make before the draft.  However, Matt Murray is the only goaltender around who is 22 years old and has already backstopped his team to a Stanley Cup championship, putting the Penguins in the position of having two Cup-winning goaltenders to deal with.

The apparent risk is that, if the Penguins hold onto both goaltenders up to the expansion draft, they will definitely have to stick with Fleury, who turns 32 in November and has three seasons, including this one, left on his contract at $5.75M/year.  Murray just signed a contract extension on October 21 that extends two years past Fleury’s contract for $2M less per year and keeps his RFA status at the end of that.  Now, Fleury could waive his limited no-movement clause before the expansion draft and risk finding out what it’s like to tend goal for a newly-minted expansion team (history says: not very fun), but there’s no reason to suggest that Fleury wants to explore that option, having spent his entire career in Pittsburgh and two Cup rings to show for it.  While goaltenders sometimes play very well into their thirties, most athletes are nonetheless declining as they age.  Over the years the Penguins haven’t had the luxury of two quality goaltenders at once, and even fewer circumstances when one of them is a relative rookie and a backup no less.  This luxury benefited them greatly last season, as Fleury carried the team through the regular season and Murray finished the deal in the playoffs, and all public indications from general manager Jim Rutherford suggest that the Penguins are content to maintain the status quo.

Regardless, the Penguins are in a situation that they could continue to benefit from if they play their cards right.  For the short time Rutherford has been GM, it has been apparent that he is quite willing to make any moves he considers to be prudent to the team’s success; last season’s acquisitions of Nick Bonino, Phil Kessel, Carl Hagelin, and Trevor Daley were inspired and those four players were crucial to the team’s success.  Now Rutherford will have to make a very fateful decision for the future of the franchise: ride with Fleury and Murray through the end of the season and leave Murray unprotected for the expansion draft; trade the longtime Penguin veteran Fleury and embrace Murray as the future goaltender of the franchise; or trade Murray and see what kind of return they can get for a potential cornerstone goaltender.

Keep both Fleury and Murray through the season

By the time the 2016-17 regular season ends, the Penguins will have played 188 games (including playoffs) in 17 months.  For a few Penguins, add another 3-6 games for the World Cup on top of that and you’re talking about a lot of hockey without much recovery time.  This is a recipe for players to get worn down, and with two capable goaltenders on your roster you can mitigate that fatigue quite confidently.  Fleury has played between 75%-81% (62-67) of Penguins games most of his time in Pittsburgh, which typically places him in the top ten league-wide.  Last season was the first fairly-healthy season for Fleury when he played less than 75% of the games, splitting time with Murray and Jeff Zatkoff.  However, when Fleury went down with concussion symptoms towards the end of the season, Murray rose to the occasion and the rest is history.

How does having a reliable backup affect a team’s chances for success? Of the Cup-winning teams since the lockout, only Fleury’s 2009 run and the 2012 Kings with Jonathan Quick saw the main goaltender play more than 75% of regular season games.  The last four Stanley Cup runners-up had one goalie play more than 75% of the teams’ regular season games, totaling 9 of 22 Cup Finalists in those circumstances, or 41%.  Is it conclusive? Probably not, but considering that 2 of 11 Cup winners (19%) won with a goalie that played more than three-fourths of a team’s regular season games, and you could argue that being able to give the #1 goalie a rest more often might get you further in the playoffs in the end.

A lot can change over the course of a season.  One goalie or the other (or both!) could get injured, or one could outperform the other, and circumstances could conspire to require the Penguins to retain both Fleury and Murray for the duration of the season.  Just look at the Montreal Canadiens last season: two seasons ago, Carey Price was the best player in the league, then last November he injured his knee and the Canadiens floundered without him.  Coincidentally, who did the Canadiens hang their ill-fated hopes on? Current Penguins backup Mike Condon., who the Penguins will have to keep scratched unless they decide to trade him, but that’s a minor facet to the Pittsburgh’s precarious position (The Penguins traded Condon to the Senators for a 2017 fifth-round draft pick.)  Condon might have been a good option in relief of Price, but he was very far from the best when thrust into the primary role.  The Canadiens tried waiving Condon to make room for Al Montoya, who early on has played very well while spelling Price; Condon meanwhile was picked up by and has played one period of shutout hockey for the Penguins but will be kept in limbo with Fleury and Murray healthy.

The Penguins have a pretty comfortable-yet-untenable goaltending situation: they have the steady veteran in Fleury, the potential future cornerstone in Murray, a shaky backup in Condon, and another well-regarded prospect, Tristan Jarry, waiting in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to see where he will end up when the dust settles.  Additionally, the Penguins just drafted Filip Gustavsson, another highly-touted prospect who could battle with Murray and/or Jarry for the starting job in the years to come. The Penguins could simply leave the situation alone, but it may be beneficial for Jim Rutherford to make a move on either Fleury or Murray instead of risking Murray leaving for nothing.

Trade Marc-Andre Fleury, keep Matt Murray

If Rutherford is going to make a move, trading Fleury would be the toughest and perhaps riskiest option.  Fleury has been largely consistent in his eleven-plus seasons as the Penguins’ #1 goaltender, and his steady presence has helped keep a sometimes-leaky defense out of trouble.  He would be an excellent fish to dangle in front of GMs whose goaltenders aren’t consistent or solid enough to keep their teams in games, or to provide leadership in front of younger goaltenders who aren’t quite ready to take the leading role themselves.

Of course, there are a couple problems with trying to move Fleury.  One, he has a limited no-trade clause that limits which teams he can and cannot be traded to; specifically, there are twelve teams that Fleury is opposed to being traded to, and he can change that list each season.  This past May, Pensburgh theorized a list of teams that Pittsburgh couldn’t trade Fleury to, and that list probably hasn’t changed much.  However, many of those teams (Toronto, Buffalo for example) are on the way up and maybe Fleury could further help those teams turn their fortunes around.  The Sabres have not been able to find a consistent goaltender since Ryan Miller left town, and perhaps Fleury and “Disco” Dan Bylsma didn’t have a falling-out in the wake of the unceremonious end to Bylsma’s tenure in Pittsburgh two years ago.  Toronto traded two draft picks to Anaheim for Frederik Andersen who is (as of this writing) worst in the NHL in goals-saved-above-average, but the Maple Leafs are primed for resurgence with their young, talented core.  Calgary, Winnipeg, Colorado, Ottawa, Carolina, they all could use a stabilizing force in net and Fleury could provide that stability; but whether they’re on Fleury’s no-trade list would play a major factor in Rutherford’s considerations.

Two, Fleury is 32 years old, ten years older than Matt Murray; another way of looking at this is in ten years when Murray is Fleury’s age, the Penguins will be getting ready to raise Fleury’s #29 to the rafters.  That’s roughly the timeframe that Fleury has left in his career.  Fleury, to his credit, does have a 94.0 similarity score to this point in his career with Martin Brodeur, who ended his career as debatably the best goaltender of all time; other names who show up in Fleury’s top ten include Ed Belfour and Patrick Roy.  If Fleury plays the next ten seasons as consistently (or better) as he’s played his first ten, he’ll go down as one of the best himself.  Then again, some other names on his list include Nikolai Khabibulin, Evgeni Nabokov, and Kari Lehtonen; guys who have had their ups-and-downs in the last years of their NHL careers.  He might be a hard sell with only two-plus seasons left on his contract, but someone will have to give him an extension, whether it’s Pittsburgh or his future destination.  Wherever he is, he will be that team’s #1 goaltender, to be certain, but his value is suspect in spite of the first twelve years of his career

Trade Matt Murray, keep Marc-Andre Fleury

Matt Murray is the Penguins’ #1 goaltending prospect, and he proved himself capable of greatness with his play last season.  There are very few goalies all-time who won a Cup before the age of 22; legends like Patrick Roy, Mike Vernon, Ken Dryden, but also guys like Cam Ward and Antti Niemi who haven’t been capable of repeating their success.  Nevertheless, all of these guys were #1 goalies in their own right, so the idea that a young goaltender winning the Cup has good things ahead of him is not to be overlooked.  Murray is talented and confident, and he would likely be a franchise goalie for years to come.  As I mentioned before, he did sign a contract extension to bring him into his prime years, ending as an RFA, something that would be quite appealing to any team that would want him.  He also has no no-movement or no-trade clauses on his contract, meaning the Penguins are free to trade him wherever they want.

The main issue is Murray’s general lack of NHL experience.  Yes, he outplayed Henrik Lundqvist, Braden Holtby, Ben Bishop, and Martin Jones in the most difficult circumstances possible last postseason, but those twenty-one postseason games plus thirteen regular-season games are not a convincing sample size.  Looking at some other 22-year-old goalies who played at least half of the games in a season, guys like Brian Boucher, Rick DiPietro, Tim Cheveldae, Jocelyn Thibault, and Jean-Sebastien Aubin show up on the list…not exactly names that evoke positive feelings and memories.  He would have to get more experience dealing with the slog of the regular season before convincing anyone that he will be worth handing the starting role to.

That being said, a number of teams have aging goalies without a goaltender they could stake the future of their franchise on.  The Florida Panthers are one example: they have 37-year-old Roberto Luongo who is going to retire soon, then they have James Reimer who has not shown much consistency, and then Samuel Montembeault, who is 20 years old and still in the QMJHL.  The Ottawa Senators have another aging goalie, Craig Anderson, then Andrew Hammond who lit the NHL on fire two seasons ago but fell back to Earth, then 22-year-old Chris Dreidger and 26-year-old Matt O’Connor who are not quite impressive in Binghamton.  Then there are teams that just have inconsistent goaltending, such as Arizona, Carolina, Philadelphia, teams that could maybe just use a different direction.

Some other considerations

Noteworthy in all of this is the proximity of these teams (Toronto, Carolina, Philadelphia, Ottawa, Buffalo): a few are division opponents of the Penguins, and you’d have to imagine Jim Rutherford would be asking more from them for either Fleury or Murray.  In any event, Murray may be worth more to a team than Fleury considering his age, contract status, and recent history.  What could Pittsburgh get for Murray? The Penguins would probably want at least a good draft pick and a young, talented forward to shore up their depth.  Trading Fleury would probably yield a weaker but similar version of the same trade.  Of course this all is without considering other pieces Pittsburgh would offer in a trade, but the Penguins are seeing their prospect pool shallow some as players age and come into the fold in Pittsburgh or, as we’re seeing with Oskar Sundqvist and Derrick Pouliot, fall out of favor as they fall to live up to their expectations.

There is another option for Pittsburgh, of course, and that is to swing a trade with the Las Vegas franchise that would see Murray not be taken in the expansion draft as a caveat.  This isn’t a bad idea in and of itself, but of course there are innumerable moving parts to that scenario and it would take Jim Rutherford being both proactive and creative in the offseason in suggesting to George McPhee that he not take Murray in the expansion draft.  That’s ultimately the logical conclusion of Rutherford maintaining the status quo, but what it would take to convince McPhee not to move on Murray depends on what Murray does this season and who is left unprotected by the other twenty-nine teams in the league.

All things considered, the Penguins are indeed in a fairly comfortable position, made even better by winning the Cup this past season.  They have the benefit of the fans’ patience, Fleury’s capable play in front of Murray, a few more years on Fleury’s contract, Murray’s very appealing contract, and the Penguins’ surprisingly deep pool of goaltending prospects.  Jim Rutherford has shown himself to be patient and shrewd when it comes to making the right deal, and rest assured that if there is a deal on the table he will make it the best deal he can.  It would be disheartening to lose Matt Murray at all, and even more so if it is for nothing, so we can’t pretend that it isn’t in the back of Rutherford’s mind to take advantage of his situation.  For now, all we can do is sit back and enjoy what could be the strongest tandem of Penguins goaltenders we’ve seen in twenty-five years, or perhaps all-time.