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Copley latest young, promising goalie to sign team-friendly deal

It’s been a subtle but important trend in the NHL over the last year — highly-rated, young backup goalies signing very team-friendly deals on clubs that are (or will be) up against the salary cap.

The latest came on Monday when Washington Capitals backup Pheonix Copley inked a new three-year pact with the club to the tune of $1.1 million annual average value.

He became another promising netminder that a team signed a ‘smart deal’ in recent months.

Here’s the list:

Copley has proved he is on the right track as a full-time NHL backup this season. His .903 save percentage in all situations isn’t pretty, sure. But consider his five-on-five is sitting at .921, a very respectable number on a team that leads the league in minor penalties taken this season and has taken a nosedive as of late.

DeSmith, by comparison, is a .925 and Saros is just behind and a .924 in 5v5 situations. All three are in the Top 30 among goalies in goals saved above average, too, with each of them on the positive side of that category.

All three are backups with good-to-great upside and are signed to deals that aren’t forcing the team to choose between them and another roster player.

Copley and Saros project to be future signings, with Saros is the heir to Pekka Rinne’s’ throne and Copley the competent backup behind Ilya Samsonov if the Capitals decide to move from Braden Holtby after next season, or an asset down the line if Holtby re-ups. DeSmith is an excellent insurance policy for the oft-injured Matt Murray in Pittsburgh, having already proved his worth in that role this season.

You can throw another guy like Minnesota Wild puck-stopper Alex Stalock into this mix, too, after he signed late last month.

It’s a trend that could catch on elsewhere, as well.

The Winnipeg Jets would likely love to sign Laurent Brossoit to similar terms, for example. He’s having a stellar season in Winnipeg after escaping from Edmonton.

Los Angeles has decisions to make with Jack Campbell and Cal Petersen, both who have shown promise this season filling in for Jonathan Quick.

And then there’s the not-so-distant aspect of this: they represent expansion draft protection, allowing these teams to expose the mandatory one goalie without having to expose the team’s No. 1 (Saros will be the exception here).

The risk with these deals is low. We’ve already seen high-risk this year, with the Oilers shelling out $13.5 million for Mikko Koskinen, who has similar numbers to Copley but is three years his senior. It’s the above contracts that make that Koskinen extension so perplexing.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Penguins sign goalie DeSmith to cheap, smart extension

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The Pittsburgh Penguins are guilty of their fair share of salary cap snafus (screams in horror at Jack Johnson‘s contract), but they’re among the NHL’s sharpest when it comes to handling their goalies.

Yes, Marc-Andre Fleury has been absolutely outstanding in Vegas, but there are many teams that saddle themselves with problem contracts.

Instead, the Penguins have found ways to carve out impressive flexibility at the position by being proactive.

While Matt Murray‘s struggled with injuries and the occasional bout of inconsistency, he’s only carrying a $3.75M cap hit through 2019-20, and Pittsburgh locked him up after his brilliant work in their 2015-16 championship run.

Now they’ve managed to land some cost certainty with Casey DeSmith, as the team announced a three-year extension that will carry a paltry $1.25M cap hit beginning next season.

“Since joining the Penguins’ organization, Casey has excelled for us at every level, first in Wheeling and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, and now here in Pittsburgh,” GM Jim Rutherford said. “We’re pleased to have him signed with our organization for the next three-and-a-half seasons.”

Rutherford isn’t wrong there.

Obviously, Smith’s NHL numbers jump out at you first. The 27-year-old is 12-7-4 with a splendid .924 save percentage this season, and he also has a .923 save percentage over 40 career NHL games. Sean Tierney’s visualization of Corsica’s Goals Saved Against Average numbers show that DeSmith’s been one of the more valuable netminders so far in 2018-19:

Now, sure, it’s likely that DeSmith will cool off from here, but the Penguins aren’t really making that large of an investment in him. This decision compares nicely to the Predators locking down Juuse Saros for three years at $1.5M a pop (Saros has the better pedigree; DeSmith’s having the better 2018-19).

And, as Rutherford mentioned, DeSmith’s had success at other levels.

Check his AHL and NCAA numbers and you’ll see that DeSmith’s enjoyed success in most other seasons. That might not sounds like much, but compare his work at other levels to, say, Scott Darling, who faced a bumpy road through the ECHL and other leagues before things took off for him starting in 2013-14.

It’s not that difficult to picture a scenario where DeSmith got a much richer deal if he waited, particularly if he was the guy who helped Pittsburgh make a big run.

Instead, the Penguins went low-risk, with some enticing potential rewards.

The best-case scenario is that DeSmith ends up being a legitimate difference-maker who can sport something close to a .920 save percentage at that bargain-basement price. The worst? Maybe DeSmith flops and the Penguins have to buy him out or bury his contract in the AHL, while possibly stunting the growth of Tristan Jarry and others.

Cutting in between, it’s quite possible that DeSmith could be a useful backup who might be able to provide relief if Murray struggles or gets hurt.

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Looking at the Penguins’ salary structure at Cap Friendly, there are a lot of players above the age of 30 who are receiving a lot of money and sometimes-scary term. There are risks of the Penguins slipping into a Kings-like lull if too many players hit the wall.

Still, Murray and DeSmith will carry just a $5M cap hit next season, compared to $6M per year for 32-year-old Jonathan Quick.

Sure, it’s easier to herd cats than predict which goalies will excel in a given year, but all things considered, this is some masterful work by the Penguins.

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.

Wednesday Night Hockey: Murray close to returning to Penguins’ net

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues as the Pittsburgh Penguins visit the Chicago Blackhawks on Wednesday Night Hockey at 8 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

(UPDATE: DeSmith will get the start vs. the Blackhawks and Murray will back up.)

Another injury to Matt Murray once again complicated matters in the Penguins’ net. But as they did last season, the duty to help keep things afloat rested on the goalie pads of Tristan Jarry and Casey DeSmith.

Since Murray exited the lineup with a nagging lower-body injury that he tried to play through, it’s been DeSmith taking the No. 1 reins and helping the Penguins earn points in eight of his nine starts. A .920 even strength save percentage has also helped them stay in the Eastern Conference playoff mix when things were looking down just a short while ago.

Complicating matters regarding Murray’s return has been the lack of practice time. With games just about every other day, the Penguins don’t have more than one full day off until the Christmas break, a period where no practices are allowed. Factor in travel days as well and it’s been tough to get him regular work.

“Logistically it makes it a little bit more of a challenge because ideally we’d like to get these guys into a team setting before we put them back into game scenarios,” said Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan after Monday’s morning skate on Long Island. “In this instance, based on the realities of our schedule, that’s going to be a little bit more difficult.”

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS 7 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

Murray participated in a full practice Tuesday at United Center as the Penguins prepared for Wednesday’s game against the Blackhawks. He’s been skating for a week and did not rule himself out of starting in Chicago, citing a good amount of progression in his recovery.

“The thing I was dealing with was lingering and getting worse and worse, but still not enough to come out,” he said. “Eventually it got bad enough where you just need some time to rest it. I’m not going to use it as an excuse. I was sore, but it was nothing to come out of play. I was playing with it for a few weeks and it was fine. I just tweaked it one day. It didn’t hinder many parts of my game. It’s a specific place. Just giving it time to heal is the biggest thing.”

The fact that Murray has missed so much time to fully heal and not continue to play through injury is encouraging to Sullivan, who is confident the 24-year-old netminder’s season will only improve now.

“Sometimes when you have the opportunity to get away from it a little bit and get a fresh start, I think from a mental standpoint it can be refreshing for a player,” said Sullivan. “Physically for Matt, he’s going to be in a much better position to be at his best.”

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Zibanejad forces OT, notches game winner as Rangers top Penguins

The Pittsburgh Penguins had this one right where they wanted it.

A 2-0 lead heading into the third period against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden, 20 minutes away from taking sole possession of first place in the volatile Metropolitan Division.

But the Rangers, who could only hope to play the role of spoiler on during Wednesday Night Rivalry on NBCSN, did exactly that after two third-period comebacks in a 4-3 overtime win.

For the Penguins, the point was enough to move them into a tie with the Washington Capitals for first place, with Alex Ovechkin and Co. holding a game in-hand over their Metro rivals. But the Penguins won’t be looking at the silver linings after giving up 2-0 and 3-2 leads respectively in the final frame.

Pittsburgh was even gifted a glorious opportunity to break a 3-3 with 10 seconds left.

The Rangers started Alexandar Georgiev in goal, and the veteran of five NHL games nudged the net off its moorings with Pittsburgh pressing and time running down in the third. Given that it was in the final two minutes of the game, the Penguins were awarded a penalty shot.

Step up Evgeni Malkin, who was looking for No. 40 for the third time in his career. Georgiev, with an opportunity to make amends for his transgression, stuck with Malkin as he dangled in close, ultimately turning aside the attempt to force overtime.

Bryan Rust, who missed the past two games with a concussion, returned in style to give the Penguins a 1-0 lead after a scoreless first period. Riley Sheahan doubled the lead under a minute later.

Casey DeSmith wasn’t tested much during the first two periods but turned aside all 17 shots he faced through 40 minutes.

The Rangers looked like a different team in the third period. Sustained pressure forced DeSmith to make some timely saves, but the walls eventually gave way.

Chris Kreider notched his 13th followed by Jesper Fast‘s 11th to tie the game with just over five minutes to go.

Former Ranger Carl Hagelin scored just over a minute later to restore the lead for the Penguins, but the Rangers got a late power play opportunity and cashed in, with Kreider making a slick cross-ice feed to Mika Zibanejad.

And it would be Zibanejad who would have the final say in the contest, scoring at the 2:53 mark in overtime to cap off quite the comeback for the Rangers.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Tonight on NBCSN: No. 4 New Hampshire squares off with archrival Maine

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One wants in the postseason, the other wants the No. 1 seed in Hockey East.

No. 4 New Hampshire Wildcats (18-8-6) vs. Maine Black Bears (10-17-7)

It’s the final weekend of the conference schedule in Hockey East, and both New Hampshire and Maine have things to figure out heading into their rivalry battle. UNH is seeking to finish No. 1 overall in the conference and needs to score a pair of wins while hoping UMass-Lowell slips up against Providence to make it happen. If the Wildcats needed extra motivation, being able to keep Maine out of the Hockey East tournament should do it.

The Black Bears are hanging on to the eighth spot in the conference by just one point over UMass and while they can’t hope for the Minutemen to just lose to Merrimack, it’s on them to find a way to slow down a New Hampshire attack that’s done well this season.

UNH rolls with five players who fill the net regularly (Kevin Goumas leads the way with 37 points) and it’ll be up to Maine’s junior goalie, Martin Ouellette, to hold down the fort. He’s done well since taking over for Dan Sullivan and after the disastrous start to their season, Maine just making the Hockey East tournament would be a great accomplishment. Maine’s not-so potent offense will have to deal with one of the better goalies in the country in sophomore Casey DeSmith who made headlines earlier this season for UNH.

NHL prospects to watch

This game is light on draftees with just six players in all who’ve had their name called. New Hampshire has just two with Eric Knodel (D – JR – Toronto) and Greg Burke (F – SR – Washington). Knodel is a solid blue liner and he and Trevor van Riemsdyk (James’ younger brother) are their two most productive defensemen. Goumas, an undrafted junior forward, has been the set-up man for fellow undrafted guys like John Henrion, Austin Block, and Grayson Downing (38 combined goals).

Maine, meanwhile, rolls with four draftees led by Ouellette, a Blue Jackets prospect. Joining him are a pair of solid freshmen forwards in Devin Shore (Dallas) and Ben Hutton (Vancouver). Shore is second on the team in points to undrafted senior Joey Diamond. Senior defenseman Nick Pryor (Anaheim) has played in 17 games this year earning just two assists.