CRANBERRY TWP. — Casey DeSmith’s expectations couldn’t have been more modest when the Penguins called him up last week.
“I didn’t think I’d even play,” the rookie goaltender said with a smile.
DeSmith was brought up from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton when No. 1 goalie Matt Murray left the team during its West Coast trip to return home to Thunder Bay, Ontario for his father’s funeral.
However, the Penguins decided to go with DeSmith in net rather than fellow rookie Tristan Jarry for each of the last four games entering the All-Star break. They marked the first four starts of DeSmith’s and the Penguins went 3-1 in those games as he posted a fine .944 goals against average.
DeSmith is now clearly the current No. 2 on the depth chart, evidenced by the Penguins shipping Jarry to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton for the break.
It marks quite a rise for a goalie who was not drafted following his career at the University of New Hampshire and has never been considered a prospect. DeSmith began the season as the No. 2 goalie with the Baby Pens behind Jarry and No. 4 on the organizational depth chart with Murray the starter In Pittsburgh and since-released Antti Niemi as the backup.
“It really has been amazing,” DeSmith said following practice earlier this week at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex. “It’s a case where I’m not trying to think about what is going on too much. I’m just trying to think about the next game, what I need to do to get better and help the team win. But, yeah, of course, it’s an exciting time. I wouldn’t be truthful if I said any differently.”
Another UNH Netminder
DeSmith’s performance has brought back memories of another late-blooming Penguins goaltender who played collegiately at New Hampshire.
Ty Conklin was 25 when he made his NHL debut with the Edmonton Oilers and 31 in 2007-08 when he played a key role during a season in which the Penguins reach the Stanley Cup finals. Filling for injured Marc-Andre Fleury, Conklin compiled an 18-8-5 record with a 2.51 goal against average in 33 regular-season games.
Conklin also faced steep odds as an undrafted college free agent. However, he overcame them and so has DeSmith.
DeSmith made his debut Oct. 29 when he mopped up in relief of Murray in a 7-1 loss to the Jets at Winnipeg. He also took over for Jarry on Dec. 9 in a home loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs.
“I appreciate being here, whether I’m starting or the backup or whatever the team wants,” DeSmith said. “The goal has always been to get to the NHL. That’s the biggest thing.
“I’ve always believed I could do it. It’s been the combination of a lot of things from hard work to a lot of good coaching to having a lot of great teammates to having a great family who has always supported me. It hasn’t always been easy but when you have a lot of support, it makes it easier to stay positive and keep believing.”
DeSmith then added, “I’m also playing in a great organization for goaltenders. I’m very fortunate in that regard.”
Indeed, general manager Jim Rutherford was an NHL goalie for 13 seasons, including two with the Penguins, and goaltending coach Mike Buckley is considered one of the best in the business.
Casey DeSmith, 3 Strong
DeSmith’s recent success has led some to speculate the Penguins might use either he or Jarry in a potential trade for a third-line center. DeSmith, for his part, says he has no desire to leave the organization that gave him the opportunity to play professionally.
Furthermore, Rutherford told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Jason Mackey that he isn’t willing to deal from his goaltending depth.
“We’ve gone through a transition period here where the No. 1 goalie for years — and one of the franchise’s most beloved players — has moved on,” Rutherford said, referring to losing Fleury to the Vegas Golden Knights in the expansion draft last summer. “We’ve transitioned into a team that probably has the best group of young goalies in the league. I don’t have any interest in talking about these three guys.”