The Pittsburgh Penguins have difficult decisions ahead with their goaltending position and the salary to which they can commit to the net. Both Matt Murray and Tristan Jarry are pending RFAs once we finally finish this coronavirus paused season. And because the Penguins have not yet seen the final chapter, the book on both goalies is missing the most crucial part.
Figuring out a player’s value can be as much of an emotional exercise as it is a cold analytical process. That emotion or colored perception isn’t just limited to fans, either. After winning multiple Stanley Cups in the last eight years, the LA Kings and especially the Chicago Blackhawks, treated their aging veterans like the studio audience at a taping of Oprah.
And you get a contract, and you get a contract!
Penguins GM Jim Rutherford has done well to avoid dishing stacks of cash to emotionally endeared veterans, unlike Chicago and LA. Rutherford passed on Trevor Daley for Matt Hunwick to save about $1 million.
However, Murray may be the exception to the rule. Big-game goalies are a rare breed. Marc-Andre Fleury is a great goalie, but maybe not a big-game goalie. Remarkably, all-time great Patrick Roy was only 6-6 in Game 7s.
Murray is 3-0, not including shutouts in Game 5 and 6 of the 2017 Stanley Cup Final.
If you think such performances don’t add dollars to a contract in 2020, you’re probably wrong. If not the Pittsburgh Penguins, then another NHL team will pony up a few more dollars than statistics mandate in exchange for a goalie who doesn’t sweat under the brightest lights.
More than a few readers have asked which goalie the Penguins plan to keep. The answer is — I don’t know. I’m not sure the Penguins yet know. If Matt Murray stonewalls the competition this summer and the Penguins have another exciting playoff run, do you think the Penguins would trade his rights?
The goalie market has settled into a rhythm. Except for silly outliers like Florida’s generous donation to Sergei Bobrovsky’s wallet, which will reach $12 million and carries an annual $10 million cap hit, most starting goalies find themselves in a specific salary range.
And most teams pay a similar salary cap percentage to their goalies, too.
The median salary cap percentage for goalies is 8.20%. There are 15 teams each above and below that line. The average each club spends on a pair of goalies is 8.23%.
So, assuming next season the Pittsburgh Penguins have Casey DeSmith and his $1.25 million salary as the backup, then a starting goalie could make about $5.5 million.
Sounds about right for an unquestioned starting goalie, doesn’t it?
But things are never that simple in Pittsburgh.
Matt Murray has yet to play a full NHL season. This season is the first in his four-plus year career in which he has avoided significant injury. However, his play merited what was essentially a two-month benching through November and December, and a timeshare in January.
In the season prior, Casey DeSmith temporarily wrestled the net away in December, and the Murray failed to win a playoff game. However, the playoff debacle against the New York Islanders hardly fell on Murray’s shoulders, but rather a disjointed locker room which needed at least one come-to-Jesus meeting and other excised talent.
So, the last two winters count against Murray’s value. That’s inescapable. The emotional value or the belief will add a few of those dollars back. No other goalie has been the starting goalie for a pair of Stanley Cups before their rookie status expired.
Murray currently makes $3.75 million per season. Regardless of the outcome this season, that number will decrease only if the NHL and NHLPA negotiations fail to mitigate the potential salary cap disaster which neither party wants.
So, we can establish rough guardrails of $3.75 to $5.5 million per season, as Murray’s stats haven’t yet surged past the middle of the pack. Last season, Murray hit the 50-game mark and posted a respectable .919 save percentage before the ignominious four-game sweep by New York. Though Murray had just a .907 save percentage in 2017-18, his first as the unquestioned starter.
After last season, the needle pointed. If Murray duplicated those numbers this season, a contract in the $6 million range would be fair. Perhaps a little more, based on a pair of Stanely Cups. However, this season hasn’t been friendly to Murray’s contract hopes.
Murray has instead posted an anemic .899 save percentage behind the same team in which Tristan Jarry has posted a .921 puck stopping rate. That certainly doesn’t help the contract talks.
What is Matt Murray worth?
PHN has been pretty close on several recent contracts, but we’re not undefeated. Defenseman Marcus Pettersson got 15-25% more than we expected, while Zach Aston-Reese signed for 25-50% less than we expected. So, we’ll serve the salt with our projections.
Murray’s reputation around the NHL is solid. There aren’t any nagging questions or worries. There are likely some wonders if he is a bonafide, consistent 50 to 55-game top-level starting goalie in the regular season. He hasn’t yet posted those numbers.
But those Stanley Cups ring loudly.
Given the immensely unpredictable future, Jarry’s emergence, and strong likelihood either Murray or Jarry must be traded, Murray’s value is probably in the 4.5- $5 million range. Jarry’s emergence limits Murray’s contract value, at least in Pittsburgh, because Jarry gives the Penguins another option.
Beyond that figure, Murray likely prices himself out of Pittsburgh, and we surmise there aren’t many teams willing to pay that money. The Penguins trade winds swirled hard after Rutherford spoke with The Athletic on Tuesday. Perhaps PHN added to the storm with a detailed description of behind the scenes maneuvering and recent trade talks.
In a somewhat surprising twist, it does feel like Murray is the more likely goalie to be traded, but that’s far from a certainty. The 2019-20 book hasn’t yet been finished, and Murray shined in the final chapter of prequels.
We put Murray at just under $5 million per, for three to five years. We just won’t predict which team will be signing the checks.