PITTSBURGH — Matt Murray‘s legacy with the Pittsburgh Penguins – such as it is at age 26 – is secure, as. That tends to happen when you have your name on the Stanley Cup. Twice.
It’s the goaltender’s future, however, that is murky.
Not that Murray is thinking about the uncertainty that awaits whenever the ”official” NHL offseason arrives. With restricted free agency looming and the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic on the league’s open market unknown, Murray is trying to keep it simple. Go to the rink. Stay sharp. Just play.
”All I’m focused on right now is preparing myself to be the best I can be on the ice,” Murray said Tuesday. ”The rest of it, it will take care of itself.”
Hopefully. Murray is currently working out with the rest of the Penguins in small groups during Phase 2 of the league’s Return to Play program. In a way, having only a handful of players on the ice at once instead of the full complement has sped up how quickly he’s reacclimated himself following the ”pause” that began in mid-March as the coronavirus spread. Fewer skaters equals more shots. More shots equals more opportunities to try and take hold of what has been a somewhat muddled starting goaltender situation.
The Penguins, who finished in fifth place in the Eastern Conference this season, had an All-Star goalie on the roster. But it wasn’t Murray. It was Tristan Jarry, who rode a hot streak during the first half to an unlikely berth in the midseason showcase, and sparked talk of becoming Murray’s successor sooner rather than later.
Going by the numbers, Jarry was better during the regular season, and it wasn’t particularly close. He had a significantly higher save percentage and lower goals-against average than Murray. Yet Jarry remains unproven in the playoffs. Not Murray, who went 21-9 in the postseason in 2016 and 2017 as the Penguins became the first team in a generation to capture back-to-back championships.
That figures to give Murray an edge in the eyes of coach Mike Sullivan, who arrived in Pittsburgh less than two weeks before Murray made his first NHL start. Every time there has been any sort of intrigue in the goaltending situation, Sullivan has consistently turned to Murray. It figures to be much the same when the league resumes play with the Penguins facing Montreal.
As weird as it might look whenever the NHL resumes – 24 teams split between two hub cities, no fans in the stands, and a ”bubble” designed to keep the players steer clear of the virus – Murray thinks when it comes down to it, it will still be playoff hockey. Just with a twist.
”This is, I think, the best option on the table, and we’re going to make the most of it,” he said. ”In terms of preparation, I would say it’s similar to the normal playoffs. It’s just an extra (round) series. The fact that we’ve been off for such a long time kind of makes it feel a little bit more like a tournament and just kind of builds the excitement. It’s great. It’s the best that we can do in the situation. I know me personally and our team, we’re looking forward to the challenge.”
But it’s a good first step and allows us to talk hockey for the first time in a few months. The Qualifying Round will kick things off with eight series with lengths that are currently undetermined.
In this week’s Power Rankings we take a look at the top storylines a round with some interesting matchups.
1. Non-playoff teams given second life
Thanks to the RTP format, the Canadiens and Blackhawks, two teams more than six points out of a wild card spot were given a second life. Could they have made a run in the final month of the regular season? Sure, so could the other teams that were out of a playoff spot at the time of the March 12 pause.
“That was a huge issue in putting the format together, trying to figure out numbers, who deserves to be in, who deserves maybe a handicap and whatnot, but ultimately there’s just no way,” said Oilers forward and Return to Play Committee member Connor McDavid. “I mean, we’ve beaten this thing to death, there’s just no way to handicap those teams. This maybe isn’t the most fair way but I think the integrity of the Stanley Cup Playoffs is still going to be intact.”
But now? Everything is reset and a hot goaltender plus a possible short series could mean an upset.
Say what you will about teams like Montreal and Chicago getting in — if they somehow become champions, they will definitely have earned it.
“Let’s say a team like Montreal beats Pittsburgh and does go on to win the Stanley Cup,” McDavid added, “I think they’re a very deserving team. If they’re going to win five rounds and go through some really good teams, then maybe they do deserve it. There’s never going to be a perfect scenario.”
2. Who is most vulnerable in a potential short series?
As we noted, while the conference finals and Stanley Cup Final will be best-of-seven, it’s yet to be determined whether the Qualifying Round, First Round, and Second Round will be best-of-five or the usual best-of-seven.
With the amount of time off and the possibility that only three wins could be needed to advance, which higher seeds might be most at-risk?
The Blue Jackets, after a season of filling their trainers’ room every week, should be close to full-health. They’ve been playing with a chip on their shoulders all season and have succeeded after losing Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky. The Maple Leafs will enter the series with the pressure of winning given their star-studded lineup and dangerous offense. As if John Tortorella needs anything more to add to the “underdog” mantra.
Every playoff team dreads facing the “hot goalie.” All it takes is one 2010 Jaroslav Halak and Cup dreams can come to an end. Is it a stretch to see Carey Price providing issues for the Penguins or Corey Crawford shutting down McDavid and Leon Draisaitl or Igor Shesterkin further cementing his place as New York’s No. 1 by ending the Hurricanes’ season?
At least each team’s pro scouting department will have more than enough time to pick apart the opposition.
Any goalie decision is an important, and the wrong one could swing a series, especially in a possible best-of-five.
A goaltender’s success or struggles before the pause may be erased given the amount of time off. History against a specific team (Henrik Lundqvist dominance over Carolina, for example) or experience can play in a coach’s decision on who to start. That will make training camp performance vital for those who don’t necessarily have the No. 1 job locked down.
4. Stars getting healthy
Seth Jones, Dougie Hamilton, Conor Garland, Jacob Markstrom and Jake Guentzel are a few names in the Qualifying Round who should be back on the ice when play resumes. With nearly four months between games, this round will allow teams to be healthier than usual. It will also put a further importance on training camp leading up to puck drop.
Hamilton, for example, hasn’t played since mid-January, and Jones’ ankle took him out of the lineup in February. Camp will be valuable time not only for those them to get back into hockey mode but also ensure no setbacks when it’s time for contact.
Those players will be among the names in the Qualifying Round who switched teams this season, but didn’t get a ton of time to settle into their new digs. Toffoli (6-4-10–10 GP), Zucker (6-6-12–15 GP) and Galchenyuk (3-4-7–14 GP) have had strong starts and will be needed in their individual series.
Meanwhile, Taylor Hall had a longer run with the Coyotes and in 35 games put up 27 points.
In a number of cases — Zucker, Skjei, Pageau, Trocheck, etc — the players have term remaining on their contracts. But then you have the pending unrestricted free agents. The Canucks gave up a good package to add Toffoli; Arizona is hoping to entice Hall to stay; Toronto is relying on Kyle Clifford to bolster their bottom six in what’s going to be a grind-it-out series vs. Columbus.
These players will get time during July training camps to get acclimated with their new teammates and further educate themselves on their new systems. Disappointing outputs could have a big effect on their next contracts.
Wild captain Mikko Koivu has an expiring contract and has hinted his days in Minnesota could be coming to an end. Could GM Bill Guerin value his leadership enough for a one-year deal or will the forward choose to end his playing career at home in Finland?
Is there a spot somewhere in the NHL for Jason Spezza next season? “I’m just enjoying coming to the rink every day, trying to get better day to day,” he said in February. “I can’t say I’ve been too nostalgic at all, kind of going in and out of places. I hope to have a good year and keep going.”
A tighter salary cap could squeeze out a number of veterans as teams look for cheaper, younger alternative already in their systems. Will any get to have their Ray Bourque moment?
With the NHL’s Return to Play announcement on Tuesday, we learned the eight Qualifying Round matchups if play is to resume in a few months. We also learned that the top four teams in each conference will play to determine seeding for the First Round.
For the Eastern Conference, the winners of each Qualifying Round will go on to face one of Boston, Tampa, Washington, or Philadelphia.
Now that we know the teams, let’s take an overview of the four Eastern Conference matchups.
At the time of the March 12 pause the Penguins were sitting in a playoff spot, four points behind the Capitals for the Metropolitan Division lead. The Canadiens, on the other hand, would be enjoying their off-season if we had the traditional 16-team playoff format.
How rough of a regular season was it for the Habs? Out of their 71 games played, they only won 19 in regulation. They were one of the league’s top possession teams (54% Fenwick, per Natural Stat Trick) but it was their own end of the ice where the issues popped up. Montreal was middle of the pack at 5-on-5 goals against (142) and shots against (1,710), save percentage (.917), and were bottom-10 in shooting percentage (7.49%).
The Canadiens experienced two eight-game losing streaks, a five-game skid, and went into the break losing 10 of their last 14 games. Pittsburgh also would be coming off a big-time slide having lost eight of their last 11 games. A several-month pause could certainly help break such a skid.
It was also a season of injury for the Penguins. Pittsburgh is currently third with 298 man-games lost to injury or illness, per ManGamesLost.com. Only seven players have played at least 60 games. But, in line with their season, one of those players, Dominik Simon, injured his shoulder in February and will be out at least six months following surgery.
Penguins lead season series 2-1-0. Last meeting: Feb., 14; a 4-1 Penguins victory.
Injured players who could return
Jake Guentzel suffered a shoulder injury in late December and was ruled out for 4-6 months. Should play resume in late July/early August that could be enough time to mend for the Penguins forward. Zach Aston-Reese, Brian Dumoulin, and Nick Bjugstad were all injured players who returned just before the pause. Unfortunately for Bjugstad, GM Jim Rutherford said on Wednesday the forward underwent an undisclosed surgery this week and will be out the rest of the season.
This will be a series featuring a team that dealt with major injuries seemingly every week, yet remained in contention for the division lead against one that has dealt with consistency issues. It’s a short series, so we know a hot goalie can steal games, which brings us to…
Carey Price, who became the focal point of a storyline about the Penguins fearing him in a short series, hasn’t been his usual dangerous self. He’s 32nd in even strength save percentage this season among goalies with 1,000 minutes played (.919) and 32nd in goals saved above average (.27). Why would Mike Sullivan’s team be scared of that?
(6) Hurricanes vs. (11) Rangers
Regular season recap
It was a tight race at the bottom of the Metro as well as for one of the East’s two wild card places. The Hurricanes played 68 games and earned 81 points, putting them in the top wild card spot with two games in-hand on the Rangers, who were two points behind Carolina.
New York is in the middle of a franchise transition rather than the tear-it-down approach to rebuilding. They’ve brought in youth to mix in with prime-age veterans and it resulted in a good step forward. There are plenty of decisions to be made in the off-season, but GM Jeff Gorton’s moves have set the team up well. Artemi Panarin is a Hart Trophy candidate, Mika Zibanejad scored a career high 41 goals, as did pending restricted free agent defenseman Tony DeAngelo (15 goals, 53 points). Chris Kreider, who was nearly dealt at the trade deadline before signing a seven-year extension, hit 20 goals for the fifth time in the last six seasons. Rookie Adam Fox, whose signing rights were traded from Carolina to the Rangers last summer, played his way into the Calder Trophy discussion with 42 points.
The Hurricanes were one of two NHL teams to vote against the Return to Play proposal. Player rep Jordan Martinook said the reason was because they felt it was unfair for a team already in a playoff spot to have an extra round to participate in. Carolina headed into the break with a three-game winning streak and were feeling confident about their final 14 games.
Whatever goaltender the Rangers play will be busy. The Hurricanes fired 300 more even strength shots on goal than New York. They’ll also be tasked with facing a tough offense with Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen and Andrei Svechnikov leading the way. Carolina likes to dominate possession, but like Montreal, their own zone tends to be where the issues develop. Their goaltender has been sub-par, leading to a .912 5-on-5 save percentage despite 1,549 shots allowed at even strength, fewest in the NHL.
Rangers lead series 0-4-0. Last meeting: Feb., 21; a 5-2 Rangers victory.
Chris Kreider fractured his foot on Feb. 28, but he should have enough healing and rehab time for a return to the lineup.
He wasn’t injured, but the Rangers will likely be without Brendan Lemieux for some portion of the series. The forward was suspended after the NHL pause for an undetermined amount of time. There will be clarity on that before games resume.
Storylines to watch
Is this the Adam Fox Bowl? Maybe the Brady Skjei Series? Whatever angle you go with, this is a divisional matchup with two teams believing in their bright futures. Part of the next generation for New York is goaltender Igor Shesterkin, who returned from injuries sustained in a car accident just before the pause. Will head coach David Quinn go with him in goal ahead of Alexandar Georgiev or Henrik Lundqvist, who has made one start since Feb. 3?
Neither team entered the break in a traditional playoff position, but they weren’t far off the pace. The Islanders were one point back of Columbus for the second wild card spot, while Florida sat three points behind the Blue Jackets.
Under new head coach Joel Quenneville, Florida remained on the playoff bubble, but one wonders how much further up the standings they would be if Sergei Bobrovsky, who signed a seven-year, $70 million deal in the summer, played better than his .900 even strength save percentage. Could he steal a short series? Sure, but his .904 career playoff save percentage doesn’t instill much confidence.
If we’re still counting losing streaks, the Islanders would enter a resumption in play on a seven-game losing skid. That slide goes back to mid-February as they won just twice in their last 13 games and have six total victories since Jan. 11. They lost a comfortable playoff position and found themselves fighting for a wild card place in a competitive Metro.
That 17-game point streak earlier in the season seems forever ago.
Veteran Andy Greene was added to help a defense that hasn’t been what you’d expect from a Barry Trotz team in 2019-20. Only Ottawa has allowed more even strength shots on goal and the Islanders have allowed the fifth-most high-danger scoring chances. That’s a big change from the team that swept the Penguins out of Round 1 a year ago.
The Panthers own the possession advantage here (50% Fenwick to 47%, per Natural Stat Trick) and have converted more 5-on-5 chances with an edge in shooting percentage at 9%. A huge factor will be in net with Bobrovsky against Semyon Varlamov. The Islanders netminder has a .921 ESSV% vs. a .903 for Bob. If New York, who has scored the third-fewest 5-on-5 goals among the Return to Play teams, can get their offense going, it could spell trouble for Florida.
(8) Maple Leafs vs. (9) Blue Jackets
Regular season recap
The Maple Leafs offense is potent, as we saw through 70 games. Auston Matthews put home 47 goals, followed by William Nylander‘s 31 and John Tavares‘ 26. Their top two lines are dangerous, but their goaltending will be among their biggest questions.
Frederik Andersen‘s .915 ESSV% puts him near the bottom among goaltenders with at least 1,000 minutes played. He had to play a lot of hockey given Toronto’s backup issues. Maybe the extra time off will allow him to get his game back? Consider his likely counterpart, Elvis Merzlikis, who posted a .931 in 32 games played. Or if John Tortorella could go with Joonas Korpisalo, who put up a .926 in 37 games.
Columbus was among the lowest scoring teams at 5-on-5, with 125 goals compared to that of Toronto’s 158. It wasn’t for a lack of trying, though, as the Blue Jackets were right behind the Maple Leafs with 1,837 EV shots. Converting was the issue, as seen by their 6.8 shooting percentage. Even if Andersen isn’t on his game, Toronto can overcome that with a smothering offense.
The pause could allow the Blue Jackets to get healthy as their 352 man-games lost to injury led the NHL. Already dealing with the loss of Panarin and Bobrovsky in free agency, Columbus didn’t lose faith in their ability and persisted, even as players were being added to the injury list on a regular basis.
Maple Leafs have a regulation victory. Blue Jackets have an overtime win. Last meeting: Oct. 21; a 4-3 Columbus OT win.
On one hand you have a Blue Jackets team that was battered all season long, fighting for a playoff spot despite losing their two biggest stars in the summer. They surprised many and really played with a chip on their shoulders all season long.
On the other hand, there’s a chance that if Toronto win they could face the Bruins for the third-straight season — and we all know how much Maple Leafs fans love seeing Boston in the playoffs.
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.
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.
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.
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?
They are all into their 30s at this point, and there will come a time in the not-too-distant future that they really start to slow down, but for now they remain the foundation of a Stanley Cup contending team.
Along with them there is a pretty strong supporting cast in place, and one that is probably a lot younger than you might realize. Even though they have made a habit of trading draft picks and prospects to strengthen their championship chases (as they should have) they have done a nice job replenishing the cupboard around their superstars. Especially over the past year.
Jake Guentzel (signed for five more years at $6 million per season) has become a star and one of their best home-grown players in years, while John Marino, Marcus Pettersson, and Jared McCann have been strong additions from the outside.
Bryan Rust has shown what he is capable of in an expanded role and carries a very affordable salary cap hit for the next two years, while Jason Zucker seems like an outstanding fit in their top-six while also being signed for three more full seasons after this one.
Brian Dumoulin remains a perfect complement for Letang on the top defense pair (while also being signed for three more seasons) while they have two very good young goalies in Matt Murray and Tristan Jarry that are still under team control for the next few years.
They have some long-term salary cap restrictions, but that has been a constant theme for them for the better part of the Crosby-Malkin era. It just comes with the territory of being a contending team with superstar players. They do have a couple of contracts that will probably get dumped one way or another before they expire (Jack Johnson, Nick Bjugstad, maybe even Brandon Tanev a couple of years down the line).
The salary cap crunch could also create a little headache this offseason as they work to re-sign some key restricted free agents like McCann, Murray, and Jarry.
The latter two also create an interesting situation because both have the potential and ability to be outstanding goalies in the NHL. They also have both showed it (Murray more than Jarry). But juggling that contract situation is going to be interesting, especially as they figure out what sort of financial commitment to make with Murray.
He is a two-time Stanley Cup winner. But he has had some ups and downs over the past two seasons. How much can they commit to him, and for how long?
While they have done a great job of having a steady pipeline of talent come through their system to complement the stars, there is going to come a point where they will need to develop another truly high-end player when Crosby and/or Malkin are no longer able to carry the team. That time is not yet here, but it will eventually arrive.
The bottom line is the Penguins still have a couple of Hall of Famers and All-Star level players on their roster. They are still players that can take over and dominate games. As long as they have that, they have the most important ingredient for contending.
Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, and Jake Guentzel are the type of players you win championships with. The Penguins have won multiple championships with them and been one of the league’s most successful teams by every objective measure. There will come a time when the window really does close on this core and a rebuild is needed, but that time is not here just yet. It may not be here for a couple of more years.
For as much money as they have committed to their core, and for as tight as their salary cap situation may be, they do have some pretty significant long-term contracts that are team-and cap-friendly. The trio of Guentzel, Rust, and Dumoulin is an outstanding secondary group of stars, and together they account for less than $14 million against the cap for the next couple of years. Even Crosby and Malkin are making far less than they could be. Every little bit of savings counts and helps make the rest of the team that much stronger.
They also have Mike Sullivan behind the bench who has done some of his best work this season.