The Pittsburgh Penguins have entered a new era. In a few short months, they’ll take the ice for training camp without Marc-Andre Fleury in the lineup. After all the debate around who should start between the pipes for the Penguins over the past season and a half, it’s officially Matt Murray’s team. The focus has shifted to number 30.
As if it hadn’t already, after back-to-back Stanley Cup Championships.
With Fleury’s departure, however, comes a bit of risk as well. Murray hasn’t had to shoulder the load for Pittsburgh yet and really, he hasn’t been a workhorse goaltender much at all throughout his playing career. He topped out during the 2012-13 season with 53 starts for the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds of the OHL and interestingly, that was one of his worst showings from a statistical standpoint. Fleury averaged approximately 64 starts per season with the Penguins in non-lockout years, and that includes 2015-16 when he suffered a late-season concussion — ultimately losing the starting role to Murray.
Is Pittsburgh’s young goaltender — the heir to Fleury’s throne — ready for that kind of workload? They’ll want to prepare as if he isn’t, just in case.
Is Tristan Jarry Ready for Backup Duties?
Jarry was originally considered to have a higher ceiling than Murray. Obviously, things changed in a hurry and Murray has since proved that he’s the guy — the future of Pittsburgh’s crease. But the Penguins need a good insurance plan, as Murray has yet to prove he’s capable of staying healthy throughout the entirety of a grueling 82-game season. What if he’s injured as the 2018 postseason kicks off, as he’s been for both 2016 and 2017?
Jarry is developing well but the Penguins likely aren’t ready to ride him for an extended period of time throughout the regular season or playoffs.
Through 45 games with the Wilkes/Barre-Scranton Penguins, Jarry posted a .925 save percentage — his best since 2012-13 while playing in the WHL — tying Islanders veteran netminder Jaroslav Halak for third place among all AHL goalies. Only five goaltenders finished with a better save percentage, with a logjam at number two as four of them boasted a .926. That’s impressive in his first professional season as a starter.
Unfortunately, Jarry has yet to start a meaningful NHL game, though. And risking a scenario in which he’d have to lead this team down the stretch — or into the postseason — is something this Penguins team can’t afford to do. Plus, like Murray in recent seasons, it’s best for Jarry to continue playing on a nightly basis in the AHL to help fuel his development. For those reasons, Pittsburgh will likely explore the goalie free agent market and honestly, trading for help in that area shouldn’t be ruled out.
Unlike the free agent market for forwards and defensemen, if you’re looking for a backup goaltender, there are quite a few solid options. Unfortunately, there are also plenty of other teams in the mix and the last thing Pittsburgh needs is a bidding war for a number two netminder.
Two names stand out when looking at unrestricted free agents: Mike Condon and Anders Nilsson. Pittsburgh is familiar with Condon after his short stay with the Penguins this past season before they traded him to the Ottawa Senators. He went on to play 40 games for Ottawa due to various injuries and family health issues among Senators’ goalies and fared well. His individual numbers weren’t stellar — a .914 save percentage and 2.50 goals-against average — but he was a large contributor to the Senators ranking ninth in the NHL for high-danger save percentage and helped keep things afloat during Craig Anderson‘s absence. He’s also used to taking on extended roles due to injury after taking the reins in Montreal during the 2015-16 campaign and of course, last year in Ottawa.
The big question with Condon is his price tag. Will he remain a cheap backup option? His expiring contract (2 years, $1.5 million) carried a cap hit of $575,000 annually but he’ll almost certainly expect a raise this summer. How much of a raise is obviously the most important question, but anything at or below $1 million is worth it.
Now, what if I told you that the struggling Buffalo Sabres ranked sixth league-wide in even strength save percentage? Robin Lehner and Anders Nilsson were surprisingly good in Buffalo last season and Nilsson — who played 26 games in relief of Lehner — boasted an impressive .923 save percentage on the season. That number matches Penguins’ netminder Murray, though Nilsson’s goals-against average was slightly higher (2.67 vs. 2.41). The 27-year old would be a perfect fit behind Murray and should carry a very friendly cap hit.
Jonathan Bernier, Brian Elliott, Chad Johnson, Antti Niemi, and Steve Mason round out the list of possible suitors — with Ryan Miller worth an honorable mention, but he’s expected to return to Vancouver and likely isn’t a fit for full-time backup duties in Pittsburgh. Niemi, of course, has struggled as of late and was recently bought out by the Dallas Stars. With so many other options out there, the Penguins would be best served if they avoid becoming part of his potential redemption tour.
We’re just a few days from the start of free agency and while the Penguins will mainly focus on center and defense, goaltending will need to be a priority. Unless, of course, they like the idea of entrusting a 22-year old with almost no NHL experience to back up their very young starter who may or may not be injured often throughout the season.