Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Matt Murray has had a brief but notable NHL career. The young netminder backstopped two Stanley Cup champions before his rookie status expired. The organization placed great faith in Murray by first elevating him above long-time starter Marc-Andre Fleury, and then with a three-year contract worth just shy of $12 million. Murray is the franchise goalie but head coach Mike Sullivan is tasked with winning games and sometimes hard decisions are made.
Sullivan has put the struggling Murray on the bench in favor of red-hot Casey DeSmith, who will make his third straight start tonight in New Jersey.
“It’s never an easy conversation. It’s one of the harder parts of our job as coaches to tell guys they’re not going to play on a given night,” Sullivan conceded. “These guys are proud guys. They’re competitive guys. They all want to play.”
Such is the nature of professional sports; the great meritocracy that so many of us may wish would come to our fields of labor. Produce and play. If someone behind you in the pecking order, they get to play. Warm and fuzzy professional coaches are usually unemployed coaches.
And so Sullivan is upsetting the status quo and turning to his backup goaltender, even has his franchise guy may grit his teeth in some angst. This is the second time in this young season DeSmith will make three straight starts to relieve a struggling Murray.
“Casey has played extremely well here in this early part of the season,” said Sullivan, who later said, “his early part of the season has been impressive.”
DeSmith has an astounding 1.89 goals-against-average and .942 save percentage, both place him among the leaders in the NHL. But even as Sullivan hands over the temporary reigns to a 27-year-old backup goalie in his second NHL season, he is clearly defining the situation.
“There is a lot of hockey left and we’re well aware of that. And we know (Murray) will be a big part of it moving forward,” Sullivan continued. “Matt knows we have faith and trust in him as a goalie.”
The Penguins may be forgiven for wondering what the older DeSmith may have to offer. Goaltenders typically reach their peak in their late 20’s and early 30’s. Murray is still a few years from that window, but DeSmith is just entering it. Murray has excelled in platoon situations and DeSmith is giving them a chance to win each start. It’s an odd situation as Murray was anointed the franchise goalie but stumbled through last season and into this season.
And unheralded DeSmith has surged past both highly touted prospect Tristan Jarry on the Penguins depth chart but now is also siphoning playing time from Murray. And to his credit, Sullivan is playing the better goalie, right now. Sometimes that decision isn’t easy.
The talk, as much as the decision, is indeed, “the harder part of the job.”