It’s been 17 months since the Pittsburgh Penguins officially cast their lot with goaltender Matt Murray. The team was fleeced for a 2021 second-round choice to ensure then 31-year-old Marc-Andre Fleury would become the new face of the Vegas Golden Knights and Murray would carry the Penguins torch. And 17 months later, Casey DeSmith made his sixth start and made his ninth appearance in 15 games…because Murray has struggled.
DeSmith has two shutouts in six starts. He is 3-1-2 with a .941 save percentage in nine appearances and six starts.
Murray has yet to play as well as the unquestioned starter as he did when he had to earn time.
The answer, at least in the short term is simple. The Penguins should elevate DeSmith to a platoon situation with Murray. DeSmith has earned the opportunity and to this point in his career, Murray has been better in a time-share situation. The Penguins surprised everyone by going with DeSmith in Washington, Thursday. And he earned another start, Saturday.
“It’s giving Matt a chance to spend some time with (Mike Buckley) our goalie coach. Work on some areas of his game that we think we’ll help him improve,” said head coach Mike Sullivan. “We know Matt’s going to be a big part of this team moving forward and we’ve got two capable goalies at this point.”
It should be DeSmith who carries more of the workload from in the short term and a near equal share after that; for the Penguins sake and even Murray’s sake.
“It was the statement win that everyone wanted and everyone needed to feel good,” said DeSmith. “You know, turn the ship around. I think it’s one of those scenarios once we got one win, we’ll start to feel good about ourselves, it will carry on from there.”
DeSmith, 27, has one strength as a goalie: he stops the puck. At 6-foot-1, he isn’t a large goalie. Nor is he extraordinarily athletic.
But he stops the puck.
Las season, DeSmith easily had the best save percentage among the three Penguins goalies, including Murray and Tristan Jarry. DeSmith rejected .921 of the shots faced and had a positive goals-saved-above-average, 3.25. This season, his numbers are even better. DeSmith has a .941 save percentage and strong 7.42 goals-saved-above-average.
For all of the promise, still, no one knows if Murray is a full-time starting goaltender. He excelled in a platoon-slash-competition with Fleury for a season and a half. However, in Murray’s first full season as the starting goalie, he slipped to a porous .907 save percentage behind a team defensive scheme which often included a heaping dose of indifference.
And now the Penguins are turning to DeSmith, just as they did in middle October when DeSmith made three straight starts to help the team stabilize a wildly inconsistent start, which included some shoddy goaltending and another Murray injury (minor concussion). In his first three-game run, DeSmith earned a win, an overtime loss, and a shootout loss before yielding to Murray.
DeSmith was very good against Washington, Thursday. He was brilliant against Arizona, Saturday. The direct comparison between the goaltenders is decidedly in DeSmith’s favor. Part of DeSmith’s advantage is his lack of exposure; he has played in just 23 NHL games. Much in the same way Murray was unbeatable before opponents began to pick at his shortcomings, DeSmith is off to a strong start. But there is no guarantee DeSmith is a long-term NHL goalie.
Murray has not yet played 50 games in any of his previous three seasons. This season was to be his rebound year. However, just 15 games into the season, he has been sent back to the drawing board with Buckley. That’s not a good omen.
The only good omen in the Penguins net is DeSmith’s ability to play well in big games, including against rival Washington. To this point, he has outplayed Murray and has earned a share of the net. And such an arrangement could be the best for Murray, too.