In an offseason defined by scarce cap space which may force NHL GMs to re-enact Lord of Flies, the price for starting goalies is going up. And up. The Stanley Cup-winning St. Louis Blues stumbled and bumbled their way through the first half and more of the regular season until unheralded Jordan Binnington claimed their net. Behind a competent goalie with a rock-steady mental edge, St. Louis turned everything from bad to good. While players are being squeezed over pennies this summers, goalies are driving away in armored trucks. And that’s not good news for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
But it might be excellent news for Penguins goalie Matt Murray.
Monday, Tampa Bay showed their starting goalie and Vezina trophy winning Andrei Vasilevskiy the money. They splashed the cash to the eye-popping amount of eight-years and $9.5 million per season. Vasilevskiy became the third-highest paid goalie behind Carey Price and newly minted Florida goalie Sergei Bobrovsky.
In five seasons, Vasilevksiy has not advanced past the Eastern Conference Final. For that matter, nor has Price or Bobrovsky.
Murray, 25, already has two Stanley Cup rings collecting dust on his mantle and will become a restricted free agent next summer unless the Penguins show him the money, too.
In a direct comparison, Vasilevsky and Murray celebrated their 25th birthdays only weeks apart. However, Vasilevskiy has not suffered the downturn which Murray endured through the 2017-18 season and first half of 2018-19. There are no denials from anyone including Murray that he struggled behind the Penguins some-time defensive zone coverage.
Murray sank to a .907 save percentage in 2017-18. However, remove that low water mark, and suddenly Murray’s numbers are comparable to Vasilevskiy, but with a much stronger silver lining.
Two Stanley Cups.
Removing Murray’s low-end mark, he has posted save percentages of .930 (2016), .923 (2017), and .919 (2019). After the Penguins and Murray righted the season in December, Murray popped the third-best save percentage in the league (.943), the best goals saved above average stat (.22.55) and digging even more in-depth, Murray led the league over that time in high-danger saves above average.
Without getting bogged down in the minutia of explaining what in the world that last stat defines, simply settle on that Murray was lights out once he and the Penguins corrected his game.
Overall, Vasilevskiy posted a .925 save percentage last season as Tampa Bay steamrolled the regular season and Vasilevskiy won the Vezina trophy. Since Vasilevskiy took over for Ben Bishop in Game 1 of the 2016 Eastern Conference Final, against the Penguins, his career trajectory has been straight up. In each season, his save percentage has increased. Three seasons ago, Vasilevskiy was at .917, then .920 before hitting .925 last season. (All stats from NaturalStatTrick.com)
That stands in comparison to Murray’s near calamitous fall of 2017-18.
Now, some disclaimers for the stats geeks who are salivating at the chance to argue: Save percentage is not the end-all statistic, but without diving into a mind-numbing 3000-word summary, we’re just going to use it as the flashpoint to prove what the eyes already told us–Murray played exceptionally well in the second half, and Vasilevskiy played very well all season as he again took another step forward.
Murray’s high-end skills are generally not in question unless you’re on Facebook or Twitter during a Penguins loss.
Last season was Vasilevskiy’s fifth season. Murray is entering his fifth season. Behind the Penguins revamped roster which is heavy on defensive responsibility, Murray could–and should–be in line for a statistical spike as he experienced beginning in December 2018.
Should Murray post a .925 save percentage this coming season, which seems eminently possible based on pedigree and opportunity, that armored car will be forced to make another stop in Pittsburgh.
This summer, fans, media, and even players have been trying to figure out where the money will come to pay affordable restricted free agents. This summer, the Penguins had to find only $1 million per season for Zach Aston-Reese and $750,000 for Teddy Blueger. The Penguins are still searching for the $1.5-$2 million for Marcus Pettersson.
Murray’s restricted status will tamp down his short-term leverage, but unlikely diminish his long-term ask. With big money dished to others, suddenly $7 million per season doesn’t seem crazy. In fact, with a big year, it may not be enough.
Vasilevskiy just proved that.
Now, imagine next summer when the Penguins are staring at Murray’s contract demands…if he fulfills his end of the bargain.