Another clunker by Pittsburgh Penguins backup goalie Casey DeSmith immediately raised eyebrows. As fans piled on via Twitter and comment sections with the ferocity of the zombies of World War Z, the Penguins 5-3 comeback win over the St. Louis Blues Wednesday night at PPG Paints Arena erased the pangs of points lost in a good effort.
The Penguins largely outplayed St. Louis but trailed 3-1 in the middle of the second period. DeSmithh allowed wrist shot goals from 39 and 35 feet without heavy traffic or deflections.
A trusted hockey colleague and voice on the Pittsburgh Penguins told PHN, “I’m not going to sh*t all over Casey.”
Head coach Mike Sullivan was preemptive as he discussed DeSmith. Sullivan had to yank the backup in the middle of the second after the third goal sailed past the 6-foot-1 goalie. Sullivan answered the bigger question as part of discussing the pull.
“You know, it doesn’t diminish how we feel about Casey. He’s played some really good minutes for us. He’s a quality goaltender,” Sullivan said.
But DeSmith’s play should be a legitimate and pressing concern.
Unfortunately for the Pittsburgh Penguins, the bulk of those quality minutes that Sullivan referenced was in past seasons. In eight starts this season, DeSmith is 3-3-1 with an anemic .887 save percentage and 3.47 GAA.
In front of the same team, starter Tristan Jarry has a .934 save percentage and an impressive 1.89 GAA.
According to Hocker Reference, DeSmith has made just two quality starts this season. Those two starts came immediately before league-wide COVID issues paused the Penguins season after their Dec. 17 win over the New Jersey Devils. Since play resumed on Jan. 2, DeSmith has again been leaky.
A goalie should make at least 53% quality starts, and DeSmith is at 25%. In the advanced metrics, DeSmith is well underwater in Goals-Allowed % and Goals Saved Above Average.
The Penguins had the better of play and chances. They significantly outshot (41-29) and outchanced St. Louis (62%). The Penguins needed a couple of saves on Wednesday night but didn’t get them until (should-be) All-Star goalie Tristan Jarry entered the game after 32 minutes.
“I didn’t think Case was tracking it as well as he has been, and so I just felt like it was the right thing to do at the time,” Sullivan said. “It was a coach’s instinct on my part (to replace DeSmith). And so that’s why we decided to make the change.”
Last season, lonely eyes turned toward the Penguins bench as Tristan Jarry struggled with his first playoff performance. However, DeSmith suffered a late-season lower-body injury that required surgery, and Jarry battled the New York Islanders and himself.
In 20 games last season, DeSmith was exactly average with 53% quality starts and a just slightly above average 2.0 Goals Saved Above Average number.
There were swirling questions last summer the Penguins would shop for a veteran goalie to offer support for Jarry, whose numbers were dragged down by a terrible start, was otherwise excellent through the remainder of the regular season. GM Ron Hextall didn’t quell the trade chatter, but in October, Pittsburgh Penguins president of hockey operations, Brian Burke, downplayed the Penguins’ efforts to find a suitable veteran.
“I think Tristan Jarry and Casey DeSmith knew that there was going to be chatter because there always is, but there is no determined effort to replace anybody here,” said Burke.
There may not have been a determined effort, but there was internal chatter, as reported by multiple outlets and first by Pittsburgh Hockey Now early last summer. Piecing together multiple stories, it seems Hextall quickly realized the market was not a buyer’s market, and prices significantly outpaced the Penguins budget.
There is a special feeling growing around the Pittsburgh Penguins.
“It’s going to be fun to see what we’ve got (when everyone is healthy),” Bryan Rust said on Wednesday night.
“I think this year, with all the adversity and everything we’ve faced, we don’t even know our potential. We haven’t had a full lineup yet. … I cannot really give you a sense, but I can tell you right now that we have a lot of character in that room. A lot of guys stepped up, played bigger roles, did really well,” Kris Letang said on Tuesday.
PHN boldly stated on Monday there is indeed a little something special happening with the Pittsburgh Penguins, who have won nine in a row.
However, as the Penguins learned over the last two NHL playoffs, goaltending can change a series. Montreal Canadiens goalie Carey Price was a significant catalyst for the Canadiens to beat the Penguins in the 2020 bubble Qualifying Round. And Jarry was a primary reason the Penguins did not beat the Islanders in Round One last season.
And that loss to the rival Islanders highlighted the need for goaltending and goaltending depth. New York started Semyon Varlamov, who couldn’t withstand the Penguins furious attack, but New York head coach turned to Ilya Sorokin, who could.
Sullivan didn’t have anywhere to turn.
The Penguins felt they had that special feeling last season. The loss stung because they charged to the head of the class in the Metro Division, they were playing great hockey, and they largely outplayed the Islanders, too. Yet their season ended after just one series for the third straight season.
And that’s why DeSmith’s decline is distressing. The Penguins are staking a claim to a playoff spot and putting significant distance between themselves and the other wild-card wannabes. The Penguins are now battling for a top-three spot in the Metropolitan Division.
But one lousy bit of back luck in net or another Jarry struggle will necessitate Sullivan going to the backup goalie. Right now, DeSmith is well below average. And that’s a genuine concern that could wreck that special feeling…again.