Through the quirks of the NHL schedule and COVID protocol, the Pittsburgh Penguins have a decision to make and not much time to make it. There is the safe choice and the enticing one that could be a high reward but is high-risk, too.
Who is the Penguins backup goalie?
On Wednesday, backup goalie Casey DeSmith returned from COVID protocol, but he had company in the backup’s net. Third goalie Louis Domingue, who has played nearly twice as many NHL games but has bounced around for several years, began practice in the net. (Clarification: DeSmith has not yet been officially activated, but practiced).
DeSmith took the next couple of drills. Then Domingue switched in.
Taxi Squad goalies don’t get that kind of work during an average practice.
Ordinarily, DeSmith would be the backup, and Domingue would return to the Taxi Squad or the WBS Penguins. But nothing about this season has been ordinary.
During DeSmith’s absence, the Penguins started Domingue against the San Jose Sharks. In an otherwise terrible game for the Penguins, Domingue stopped 40 of 41 shots and propelled the Penguins to a 2-1 OT win.
“I think Louie was a big part of it. He let us hang around in a game that we didn’t play very well,” Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said.
The Penguins have a decision to make and probably only one, maybe two days, to make it. On Wednesday at practice, the entire Penguins roster was present and accounted for. All NHL contracts either returned from the protocol or injury. For the first time this season, the Pittsburgh Penguins existed as a healthy roster.
The lone exception was Drew O’Connor, who was added to LTIR.
However, the full house also means the Penguins will be over the salary cap with three goalies. Domingue is currently on an emergency recall, so he will not need to clear waivers to go back to the Taxi Squad, but the Penguins might want to keep him around.
So, a decision is coming.
“I’m definitely not trying to steal anyone’s job. I’m just doing mine, and trust me, it’s hard enough as it is to do your own job here,” Domingue said Saturday postgame.
The Penguins will likely turn to a backup goalie on Friday (Columbus) in the second of back-to-back games.
DeSmith or Domingue. Two men enter, one man leaves.
The only caveat would be if DeSmith is not yet healthy enough to resume competition, he could remain in “protocol” while he regains game shape and Domingue can remain on an emergency recall.
Pittsburgh Penguins Situation Analysis:
After a couple of solid games in early December, DeSmith seemed to be on the rebound from his first-half struggles. However, a couple of rough outings after the holiday break reinforced fears the Penguins backup situation was not settled. DeSmith, who has played in 78 NHL games, is well off his career averages.
In eight appearances, including one no-decision, he is 3-3-1 with an unattractive 3.47 GAA and .888 save percentage. His career save percentage has dropped from .921 to .913. Sullivan pulled him in the second period of his last start after allowing three goals on 16 shots to the St. Louis Blues. Tristan Jarry relieved DeSmith, and the Penguins rallied for a 5-3 win on Jan. 5.
DeSmith hasn’t played since and was placed in COVID protocol during the Penguins western road trip. Wednesday was his first day back with the team.
DeSmith would be required to clear waivers to be assigned to the Taxi Squad.
One wonders if that will factor into Penguins GM Ron Hextall’s and head coach Mike Sullivan’s thinking. Is DeSmith a danger to be claimed on waivers?
Another factor to consider, independent of Domingue’s recent show-stopping performance, is salary. Domingue ($750,000) makes $500,000 less than DeSmith ($1.25 million), which provides the Penguins additional salary cap space if he is the choice.
(The Penguins wouldn’t get an entire $500,000 salary cap savings as the cap is calculated on daily metrics and computations more complex than the NFL passer ratings. And not all of DeSmith’s salary can be stashed in the AHL since he makes more than $1.05 million).
After practice at the UPMC Lemieux Complex wrapped, DeSmith and Domingue remained to work out with a group of players doing skills work with coach Ty Hennes.
As we watched for some clue to the Penguins decision, none was reliably forthcoming. DeSmith took more reps on both ends of the ice. That could be DeSmith shaking off the rust of COVID protocol, Domingue saving himself, or both.
Domingue and DeSmith shared a word after the extra work, with Domingue’s hand on DeSmith’s back.
UPDATE (before publishing): Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan punted the question and perhaps hinted the Penguins will delay the decision, but was not definitive on the Penguins’ direction, either. When asked about the situation, he referenced that DeSmith might not immediately come off the COVID list just because he’s eligible.
DeSmith could practice with the team before being activated, remaining in protocol until he is “healthy” to resume game competition.
Editor’s Note: The story was updated to reflect Louis Domingue’s emergency recall status.