Penguins may face ‘tough decisions’ with goalies thanks to salary cap crunch

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With all of the salary cap uncertainty caused in part by COVID-19, the Penguins may face some tough choices when it comes to their goalies.

Penguins GM Jim Rutherford acknowledged as much to The Athletic’s Josh Yohe on Tuesday (sub required).

Specifically, Rutherford discussed two pending RFA goalies who played for the Penguins in 2019-20: Matt Murray and Tristan Jarry. With almost $68.3M devoted to the cap even before signing one or both, Rutherford admitted that it will be tough to retain Murray and Jarry.

“Well,” Rutherford said to Yohe. “I’ll say this: If we are going to keep both of them, we’d have to move a few things around on our team. There is a way to do things and to make that work, yes. There are some very, very tough decisions ahead.”

Rutherford compared this situation to losing Marc-Andre Fleury to the expansion draft, as the Penguins simply couldn’t afford to keep both Murray and “MAF.” While the situations might be different, Rutherford faces challenges either way.

Pondering Penguins options with Murray, Jarry, and DeSmith

One name that didn’t really come up in the Yohe story is that of Casey DeSmith, but he’s quite relevant to this situation. Let’s run down the three most prominent Penguins goalie options, then.

Matt Murray

Murray, 25, is a pending RFA whose $3.75M cap hit expires after 2019-20.

The Penguins managed a pretty nice value in signing Murray right after he surprisingly helped the Penguins win the 2015-16 Stanley Cup. Murray almost certainly would have cost the Penguins quite a bit more if they signed him during the summer of 2017 (when his entry-level contract expired), rather than that proactive extension.

Yet, it’s true that it’s kind of difficult to gauge how much Murray should cost heading into 2020-21.

After putting up absolutely splendid numbers during the regular season and playoffs while the Penguins repeated as Stanley Cup champions in 2015-16 and 2016-17, it’s been up-and-down for Murray. Murray sandwiched a strong 2018-19 regular season between tough seasons in 2017-18 and 2019-20.

To complicate matters further, Murray hasn’t really been able to prove that he’s a true workhorse. Injuries, in particular, have limited Murray’s volume.

So, on one hand, Murray has two Stanley Cup rings. There have also been plenty of stretches of impressive play. Unfortunately, Murray struggled more often than not during most of his recent stretches, though. It’s interesting to note that Rutherford told Yohe that, while the would-be starter is a Mike Sullivan decision, Rutherford did guess that Murray was the likely playoff starter if the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs happened.

With all of that in mind, what kind of contract would be right for Murray? Frankly, I have no clue.

Tristan Jarry

Many would argue that Jarry ranks as the better starting option if the playoffs happen, and with good reason. The 25-year-old performed far better than Murray by just about every measure. While Murray struggled with weak backup-level numbers (.899 save percentage, -11.6 GSAA), Jarry put up stats that hovered around elite (.921 save percentage, 11.07 GSAA).

On the other hand, while Murray boasts two rings and 199 games of regular-season experience, Jarry’s only played 62 at the NHL level. Jarry didn’t enjoy a whole lot of success before his dominant run of 33 games in 2019-20, either.

The Penguins may ponder an interesting risk. Do you go with Murray, who has struggled mightily and likely will cost quite a bit, yet is also experienced? Or do you lean toward Jarry, another pending RFA who’s headed for a raise from $675K, but should be cheaper than Murray?

Could it even come down to which goalie fetches the best return in a hypothetical trade for their rights?

Tough calls all around.

Casey DeSmith

DeSmith, 28, just endured some surprises.

  • I was a little surprised DeSmith was unable to secure at least a backup job. Obviously, the Penguins were right in choosing Jarry, but it was still jarring. After all, DeSmith managed a sturdy .917 save percentage over 50 games played for the Penguins between 2017-18 and 2018-19. Frankly, his contract extension ($1.25M AAV through 2021-22) looked like a steal at the time.
  • Instead, the Penguins demoted DeSmith, which carried another surprise: no other NHL team snatched him up. Yes, it’s difficult to find room during the waiver period right before a season starts, but DeSmith’s cheap contract and track record made him intriguing.

The 2019-20 season ended up being pretty rocky for DeSmith. He only managed a mediocre 18-18-2 record and equally mediocre .905 save percentage in the AHL.

Such stretches make it tougher to sell the idea of the Penguins getting much for DeSmith in a potential trade. During 2019-20, burying his cap hit in the minors cost the Penguins $175K. It seems unlikely that will happen again going forward, but who knows?

Tough calls for Penguins with goalies

My guess is that the Penguins will go with DeSmith as a backup to either Murray or Jarry. It’s tough to gauge the wisest course. Jarry could be cheaper, and may very well continue to provide superior play. Then again, the stakes are high for the Penguins, so if they’re wrong, it could wreck one of the precious remaining seasons they have as contenders. Would it be better to hope Murray can stay consistent and healthy, even at a higher rate, then?

There’s also an outside-the-box solution, such as dipping into the pool of free agent goalies.

It’s easy to see why Rutherford describes tough decisions. That said, there are multiple goalies who could work out for the Penguins, which is not an argument every NHL contender can make.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.