The biggest question coming into the 2017-18 season about Matt Murray had to do with his ability to stay healthy.
Five months later, that question remains the same.
As Murray sits out with a concussion — he’s missed two in a row after starting eight of nine — it’s easy to second-guess Jim Rutherford‘s post-deadline statement that he was confident with NHL rookies Casey DeSmith and Tristan Jarry. It’s especially easy after DeSmith and Jarry combined to allow eight goals on 38 Boston shots Thursday night in the Penguins’ third consecutive regulation loss.
Regardless of whether Rutherford should’ve tried to acquire a veteran backup before Feb. 26, the more relevant long-term question is whether the Penguins should be concerned with Murray’s pockmarked health history. Since entering the NHL two years ago, Murray has suffered through seven reported injuries, with three occurring this season.
The hit list for Murray so far features three lower-body injuries, one upper-body ailment, one broken hand (from the 2016 World Cup of Hockey) and two concussions. For a 23-year-old with just 135 NHL games to his name, including playoffs, that’s quite a few trips to the trainer’s room.
Running the Numbers
But, how does it compare with his peers?
Using reported injury data, I looked at the other No. 1 goalies around the league and compared to Murray’s early track record. To approximate the ‘first string,’ I simply grabbed the top 31 netminders in total appearances since the start of the 2015-16 season, combined regular season and playoffs. I also didn’t count illnesses, since they are typically short-term things and might qualify as the hazards of a wintertime professional endeavor. (Although I ran into an interesting situation with Carey Price‘s chronic fatigue syndrome, diagnosed this year. I decided against including it.)
So after all that, what did I learn? Among the 31 goalies examined, Murray has suffered the most reported injuries, with seven. Only Steve Mason was close, with six separate injuries over the past three seasons, with six other goalies at five: Price, Roberto Luongo, Ryan Miller, Semyon Varlamov and Tuukka Rask.
Since I’m sure you’re curious, here’s the full data set, complete with stints on injured reserve and the rate of games played per injury:
No matter how you look at it, Murray has been the least durable starting goalie in the NHL since the fall of 2015. That’s an even more stark fact when we consider this study is skewed in Murray’s favor, as he wasn’t called up for good until February 2016.
Despite having less time to be injured than the rest of this group, Murray has sustained more bodily harm than any of them. Those numbers don’t look any better on a rate basis, with Murray getting banged up once per every 19 appearances.
Murray’s lone saving grace? He’s only been on injured reserve once, for the lower-body injury suffered in late November this season that kept him out a coupe of weeks. Typically, he’s able to get back on the ice in reasonably quick fashion.
The next question is whether this is merely a run of bad luck, or does this indicate a trend that will carry throughout Murray’s career. Signed for two more seasons at $3.75 million per, Murray’s contract doesn’t break the Penguins’ bank, but he’s still being relied upon to take the lead in net for a team with designs on additional silverware.
Performance aside, Murray’s battle in the coming years will be to prove he can withstand the rigors of No. 1 status. His lifetime high in games played in a regular season is 53, achieved in 2013-14 with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds of the Ontario Hockey League. He was on pace to break that mark this season, until Olli Määttä‘s practice shot drilled him in the mask Monday afternoon.
While Murray has openly discussed his plan to add strength and stability to his frame, sustaining a concussion seems to be more of a fluke than anything. Two of Murray’s seven reported injuries are concussions, ranking second in this study. Only his old teammate Marc-André Fleury has more since the start of 2015-16, with three.
Murray’s current situation might’ve been unpreventable. Accidents happen when you get pelted by pucks for a living. But even with concussions discounted, Murray has some history to overcome as he prepares for what he hopes will be his third playoff run at the highest level.