The Pittsburgh Penguins’ goaltending is now feast or famine.
The team will begin training camp Friday as they have in each of the last two seasons, with two goaltenders who have at least one Stanley Cup ring. However, gone is the Matt Murray-or-Marc-Andre Fleury debate and the coaching staff’s ability to substitute one clear-cut starting goalie with another.
Instead, the Penguins will now turn to 34-year-old Antti Niemi, who won a Stanley Cup with the 2010 Chicago Blackhawks, to relieve Murray. On the first day of NHL free agency this July, the Penguins signed Niemi to a one-year deal worth $700,000.
Unfortunately for the Penguins, Niemi is no longer the goaltender who backstopped the Blackhawks through the 2010 playoffs. The Finnish goaltender was bought out by the Dallas Stars after last season, when his save percentage plummeted to .892 in 37 games. That included an abysmal .837 when the Stars were short-handed.
Over the past five seasons, Niemi’s save percentage has steadily declined from a career high .924 with the 2012-13 San Jose Sharks. Niemi slumped to a .905 percentage with the Stars in 2015-16 before his complete collapse last season. In terms of save percentage, Niemi ranked 56th of 57 NHL goalies who played at least 20 games. Only Michal Neuvirth of the Philadelphia Flyers was worse.
Contrast with Murray, who ranked 10th in the NHL and played the best game of his career in a 1-0 Stanley Cup-clinching Game 6 last June.
During the Penguins’ quest for a three-peat, goaltending could well be feast (Murray) or famine (Niemi).
Chance for Jarry?
Niemi will have a seat on the Penguins bench and will get spot starts, but he may not be the starter in the event of another Murray injury.
In his two-year NHL career, Murray has suffered a broken hand, a concussion, and a couple “lower body” injuries, including a torn hamstring last spring that held him out for the first two rounds of the playoffs. Murray’s health has been as fragile as his play has been solid.
With just a one-year contract, the Penguins have nothing invested in Niemi’s future. The Penguins do have high hopes for 22-year-old Tristan Jarry. Should Murray miss significant time, and Niemi does not show significant improvement from the play which earned him a ticket out of Dallas, the Penguins will turn to Jarry.
In just his second professional season, Jarry impressed during last year’s training camp. In 45 AHL games last season, Jarry posted a .925 save percentage and a minuscule 2.15 goals-against average. The 6-foot-2 netminder combines the movement of a smaller athletic goalie and the positioning of a larger man.
Niemi is a bigger goaltender. He is 6-2 and 215 pounds, so he covers the net with size and with solid reflexes. Niemi also has a spotty glove hand.
However, Niemi struggles with consistent positioning and offers poor rebound control. It doesn’t take much research to see that Niemi is far more rubber than glue, which helps to explain his awful short-handed save percentage.
Make no mistake, the Stars’ defense has been porous for a few years. Anchoring the pipes for the Stars has been a difficult task, though Niemi was inferior to counterpart Kari Lehtonen. The equally maddening Lehtonen managed to keep his save percentage at .902 last season.
The Penguins should know very quickly about Niemi, who should get significant time in the preseason.
In July, general manager Jim Rutherford stated he felt Niemi could play 35 games for the Penguins. It would be a risky gambit for the Penguins to attempt to play Murray 60 games. They could find themselves without Murray, as they did for the first two rounds of the 2017 playoffs.
If Niemi’s decline continues, the Penguins could be in the market for a backup goaltender, in addition to the third NHL center they’ve been seeking. If Niemi is rejuvenated by the Penguins situation, Murray will get more nights off than simply the away game of a back-to-back set.
Niemi’s rebound or washout will determine the Penguins’ next moves. Perhaps the worst he could do is tread water, so the Penguins don’t know what they have.
For the Pengiuns goalies, it will be feast or famine…