The Pittsburgh Penguins goalie battle has been one of the most interesting tidbits of the 2019-20 Penguins season. While the debate raged in the fanbase, it was also playing out behind locker room doors and in management offices. Tristan Jarry and Matt Murray are both heading towards RFA status whenever this infernal season concludes. The Penguins wallet has never been big enough for both of them, and PHN has been watching the Penguins trade talks for months.
First, stick tap to The Athletic’s Josh Yohe, who got Penguins GM Jim Rutherford on record on Tuesday. In a published report, Rutherford told Yohe the Penguins will have some tough choices and acknowledged a trade is possible. Credit where it’s due.
Second, we’re dealing with past tense information as the world changes faster and in more ways anyone can anticipate. Before the league ground to a halt, this was the situation.
Rutherford’s public comments on Tuesday dovetail to a February Penguins trade report from Pittsburgh Hockey Now, in which the Penguins began taking calls on their goalies near the 2020 NHL Trade Deadline.
Rutherford had no intention of making a deal for one of his netminders. Still, the conversations began with the expectation of culminating in a deal at or before the 2020 NHL Draft.
Multiple sources told PHN in February, and confirmed days later, that team was the Colorado Avalanche and GM Joe Sakic. The sources split on which goalie was the primary target of the Penguins trade talks, though the more senior voice said it was Murray.
Now, both sources agree Murray is the more likely target.
PHN has been following the goalie situation closely since September. We’ve never been able to fully sort through what happened on the eve of training camp when it appears a Penguins trade to divest salary fell through. Goalie Casey DeSmith expected to be the backup goalie. The team told him to stay close, even though he was demoted to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the AHL in a salary-cap move.
After the deal fell through, the Penguins didn’t have the salary-cap space to recall DeSmith, who stumbled at the start in the AHL. Or, at least his numbers were below what might be expected.
Murray was the unquestioned starter in Pittsburgh. He had a firm grip on the net and was 7-3-0 with a .923 save percentage in October.
At the same time, PHN learned Colorado was watching the Penguins situation with interest.
“I know (Sakic) likes Jarry, a lot,” said a source with first-hand knowledge.
However, in November, everything turned. Murray stumbled. In 10 appearances, Murray was just 2-2-4 with an .867 SV%. December wasn’t any better for the two-time Stanley Cup-winning goaltender, but he made only three starts with an .878 SV%.
At the same time, Jarry seized the opportunity. Jarry made six starts in November and posted a .923 save percentage. December was otherwordly. Jarry was 8-1-0 with a .947 Sv% and a 1.54 GAA.
Previously unreported by PHN, internal frustrations with Murray surfaced. Murray needed to make adjustments, but some felt he was headstrong or dismissive of those needs. The frustrations were not boiling, certainly not a Phil Kessel type situation, but they were enough to give Jarry a chance.
Jarry’s play did the rest.
“I answer that the same way every time you guys ask…” is how Sullivan began one January query about the goalie controversy. Sullivan steadfastly refused to add labels, or provide more insight beyond, “we’ll continue to give ourselves the best chance to win each night.”
Sullivan’s public response could have been printed on notecards and handed out. It didn’t deviate. One season before, Sullivan fully opened the goalie situation and indirectly challenged Murray when he declared a competition with DeSmith. There was nothing close to such talk this season.
Turn Back to Murray
The turnback to Murray was going to happen, whether fans wanted it or not. By late January, the Penguins set up the goalie division of labor and had honest talks with each puckstopper. Pittsburgh Hockey Now was able to quote inside sources that Murray was again the primary goalie and would make all four starts against the Washington Capitals.
Sullivan, who is also a straight-laced intense competitor, likes Murray’s net presence. He also enjoys Murray’s big-game prowess. If you’ve forgotten what that looks like, AT&T Sports is airing Game 6 of the 2017 Stanley Cup Final on Wednesday night. It may have been Murray’s finest hour.
Murray was a wall in January. He was 4-0-0 with a healthy .929 save percentage. There was little doubt Murray stole two points against Washington on Feb. 2, which effectively cemented the Penguins unbalanced rotation.
However, don’t mistake Sullivan turning to Murray as casting aside Jarry. Both goalies were also told the parameters of the current workload. If Matt Murray did not perform to standards, it was made clear the team would turn to Jarry.
There are not many who argue the NHL holding their 2020 Draft in June is a good idea. Certainly, none of those who argue it are NHL general managers.
Colorado kicked the tires on Murray at the trade deadline, but both sides knew nothing immediate would come of the talks. Instead, they were building toward a deal this summer.
Colorado is looking ahead to Stanley Cup battles. The team is loaded. Nova Scotia-born star Nathan MacKinnon, 24, is reaching the peak of his hockey powers. Colorado and defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues have established themselves as the powers in the west and have the best two records in the Western Conference.
However, No. 1 goalie Philip Grubauer is only 18-12-4 with an acceptable .916 save percentage. Colorado was looking for a change.
If NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman moves on his June draft wishes, that changes the calculus for both teams, it would undoubtedly squash any potential for the Penguins to make a draft deal for either goalie. It would also prohibit the Penguins from attempting to trade into the first or second round by using one of the goalies as an asset.
Why Trades Take Months
Trades often take months or even longer to complete because situations are ever-evolving. Most NEVER happen (remember that). Colorado signed backup turned 1A goalie Pavel Francouz to a two-year, $4 million deal just before the NHL Trade Deadline.
Grubauer’s deal with a $3.3 million cap hit expires after next season.
Say, what happens if Grubauer has a sparkling playoff run? What if Murray didn’t? What if Jarry emerged or wilted?
There was a long way to go before any deal was made. When the two sides talked in February, a lot could happen in the future. Of course, no one knew the world was about to be on lockdown, and even the 2020-21 season hangs in the balance.
So, for everyone who jumps to conclusions or only takes only part of the story, no deal was close. There was, however, talks that were expected to progress. Rutherford’s public comments on Tuesday were the admission of everything which was playing out for quite some time.
But even without the pandemic pause, there was no guarantee this would have been the Penguins trade, which went down.
At best, the 2020-21 salary cap will be flat. Finding enough money for two goalies who want to be starters will be difficult, if not impossible. Colorado remains a team to watch, but even their arithmetic will change.
That’s the story we were watching. What happens from here, or even if you and I will get to watch hockey before January, Lord knows?