It’s time for Mike Sullivan and the Pittsburgh Penguins to take the training wheels off of goalie Tristan Jarry. For the good of the Penguins, it is also time to let Jarry push starter Matt Murray.
To be crystal clear, the Penguins have every reason to put Jarry in the net more often not because they need more Jarry, but because they could benefit from more Jarry and more Murray. Last season, Murray was a dominant goalie in the second half. You may remember the slightly exaggerated goalie controversy in late December when Sullivan publicly refused to say Murray was the starter and inserted backup Casey DeSmith into the conversation. From Dec. 15 to the end of the season, Murray posted a .930 save percentage.
This offseason, Sullivan challenged Murray to “stay hungry.”
In Murray’s four and a half seasons, the best stretches of his career have been when battling for the net. From his mock battle with DeSmith last season to his battles with Marc-Andre Fleury in his first two seasons, the sample size is now too large to be a coincidence.
For several reasons, including his paltry $675,000 salary, this season Jarry earned the backup role. The Penguins 2013 second-round pick had stood on his head, including when he stopped 21 of 22 but lost to Vegas (and Fleury) in October. Jarry also was the losing goalie when he stopped 45 of 48 shots against Tampa Bay on Oct. 23.
Murray’s save percentage has dipped to a below-average .907, despite the Penguins solid play in front of him. Conversely, Jarry is finally emerging from the shadows of potential into here and now. He’s been spectacular, and his save percentage is a ridiculous .945 with a 1.81 goals against average in six appearances including just five starts.
This offseason, Sullivan challenged Tristan Jarry to become more serious about the small details and to improve his practice habits. PHN prodded Sullivan Friday night if Jarry has done what the coaches asked of him.
“Yes,” Sullivan said with some emphasis. “We’re all creatures of habit, we are what we repeatedly do. We felt as though his attention to detail and his focus in practice will translate to a more consistent game. That’s been one of the hurdles Tristan has to overcome to establish himself as a bonafide every day NHL goaltender.”
Jarry has been subdued in the locker room this season. He was previously gregarious and known as one of the boys in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, but Penguins winger Jake Guentzel described him quite differently Friday night.
“Just a quiet kid who works hard every day,” Guentzel said.
A quick review of Jarry’s performances this season from the PHN Report Cards turned up the words spectacular and sparkling. Except for his relief appearance in Boston earlier this month in which he was pedestrian and tagged with the loss after the Penguins rallied from a 3-0 deficit, Jarry has been stellar in his five starts.
A couple of times this season, PHN has tried to get Jarry to admit he’s playing well or even to admit after a few seasons marinating in the AHL he feels like he belongs in the NHL or even if he’s taken a peek at his statistics. We’ve asked, but Jarry has deflected our questions like he has deflected most pucks this season. He did so again on Friday.
“I’m just trying to help the team win,” Jarry said softly.
The Tristan Jarry Obstacle
Jarry clearly has to earn Sullivan’s trust. Sullivan challenged his work ethic, and to this point, Sullivan has refused to start Jarry in any game other than the second of back-to-back games. It’s time for that to change. It’s time to see what Jarry, who had 29 career NHL starts before this season but just one since 2017-18, can do at the NHL level.
The Penguins former goalie-of-the-future has toiled in the minors for four seasons: Murray and DeSmith passed-by Jarry on the organization’s depth chart. Jarry’s ascension to the NHL this season may not have been purely for hockey reasons, but he’s done more than make the most of his opportunity.
“We think he has taken it to heart, and because of that, we think his overall game has translated to this point,” Sullivan said.
You’ll notice the small qualifier at the end of Sullivan’s answer. It’s not a small thing to demand a player work harder. That’s the kind of bad wrap which has kept more than a few players in the minors for a long time and the kind of wrap which is forcing Jarry to earn Sullivan’s trust.
Tristan Jarry is stopping pucks at an extraordinary rate. If he plays more often, he will not maintain a .945 save percentage, nor will he be spectacular every night, but it’s time to find out more. We know more about Murray and know the competition makes him better.
In the short term, Jarry can push Murray. Hey, Jarry has a starting goalie pedigree, and in the long run, perhaps he could even pass Murray, who is a restricted free agent after this season will be due a nice contract. While that scenario is more fan fiction than reality, Jarry has nonetheless earned more starts.
It’s time to give Jarry those starts and give Murray another challenge. The Penguins will be better for it, either way.