Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Matt Murray will make his first preseason appearance Thursday night when the Penguins host the Columbus Blue Jackets. However the interesting moment Wednesday was Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan’s response to a standard question about Murray’s development.
Sullivan is always carefully worded. Rarely does the head coach veer from his talking points or philosophy. He knows what he wants to say, or more importantly he knows what he wants his players to hear. Sullivan did the same Wednesday but his chosen path was a surprise.
“Matt has to continue to stay hungry,” Sullivan began. “He and I had lunch a couple of weeks ago and that was my piece of advice to him; continue to strive to excel.”
Ordinarily, a coach telling a player to stay hungry wouldn’t perk up my ears. But given the Penguins wasted campaign last season with repeated handwringing over complacency born of the fallout after back-to-back Stanley Cups, Sullivan’s word choice was interesting.
Last season, Murray was a brick wall but only after he returned from an injury absence in late in December. Before the five-week absence for an undisclosed injury which was announced in November, Murray floundered. Even the injury timing seemed to bring more questions after Murray muddled and stumbled through a mediocre 2017-18 season, too.
“He’s a terrific goaltender, but we’re all capable of more and we’re all going to push one another to be better,” Sullivan continued. “And Matt is no different in that regard. As I said to him, complacency is the enemy of progress.”
Make no mistake, legitimate questions arose around Murray for the first time last season before his stellar second half. In that context, Sullivan’s “encouragement” sounded more like a harsh reminder.
“He’s got to continue to push himself on a daily basis to be at his very best.”
Matt Murray, of course, won two Stanley Cups before while he was still technically a rookie. He had to deal with the unique adversity of pushing past a beloved locker room figure and long-time Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury to be the starting goalie on those championship teams. However, Murray self-inflicted his adversity after those Stanley Cup championships. He struggled to replicate the same high level of play.
Actually, he failed to replicate that high level. Murray had just a .907 save percentage in 2017-18. He was off to an even worse start last season. Before his longer injury absence which began in November, his save percentage sank below .900, which put him at the back of the class for starting goalies. Netminders with sub .900 save percentages tend not to have jobs for very long.
“We know he’s capable of great things. We know he plays his best when the stakes are high but I strongly believe there is more to his game,” declared Sullivan.
Parsing the language and words, it sure sounded like Sullivan said the Penguins need Murray to reach his potential and play as well in ordinary situations as he does in big games. In full disclosure, that is an inference and those weren’t Sullivan’s exact words.
But Sullivan’s words were also a departure from past comments when asked about Murray, or any player. Sullivan likes to extoll the positives or things he wants to see more often. Cutting through the language, this sure seems like Sullivan pushing Murray.
And for good reason. The coach has had good success with pushing Murray in the past. Last December and into early January, Sullivan refused to name Murray the starting goalie. Instead, he pushed Murray to earn it by praising Casey DeSmith and sidestepping the question. A couple of weeks later, Sullivan returned to matter-of-factly calling Murray the team’s unquestioned starter.
Murray was one of the league leaders in save percentage and GAA in from January to the end of the season. His .941 save percentage was the best stretch of his career and was fourth-best among goalies who played more than 20 games. His goals against was a lockdown 1.91.
Not bad for a league with exploding offensive numbers, eh?
Sullivan held that success to his goalie, Thursday. The Penguins need the goalie who posted the .941 save percentage and 1.91 GAA. They can’t afford another first half with the shaky, soft goal goalie who needed to be benched. Sullivan knows what he wants Murray to hear. And he knows what the Penguins need. As the Penguins transition from a talent heavy team to an overachieving team, Murray can’t just be a big game goalie.
Matt Murray will be a restricted free agent next summer. His contract looms large but he will have to be an everyday goalie or the Penguins may not get to play in those big games. Building on the second half of last season, he will “have to stay hungry.”