The Pittsburgh Penguins entered the 2016-17 season with a good problem on their hands. With Marc-Andre Fleury missing the majority of their 2016 Stanley Cup run, the Penguins were forced to run with rookie goaltender Matt Murray in their hunt for the championship. Murray, prior to the postseason, had played in just 13 games, posting a 9-2-1 record with a 2.00 goals against average and a .930 save percentage. At just 21 years old, it was clear that Murray had a bright future ahead of him. His performance in the postseason coupled with a Stanley Cup victory, however, presented the Penguins with two legitimate starters for the 2016-17 season.
For the Penguins, there were a lot of factors to consider. The most important factor came in the form of the upcoming NHL Expansion Draft. With Fleury under contract until the 2018-19 season with a $5.75 cap hit and a modified no-trade clause and a no-movement clause in his deal, the Penguins would be forced to protect him and risk exposing Matt Murray. Another factor was age. While Fleury is still in the prime of his career at 32 years old, his value is significantly less than that of Murray who is still just 22 years old. Still, the Penguins as Stanley Cup contenders weren’t just going to trade away Fleury without a decent return coming their way. As the trade deadline passed, the Penguins goaltending depth remained the same with Murray and Fleury manning the ship.
Depth is one of the biggest keys to postseason success. Without Murray stepping into play in Fleury’s absence last season, it’s unlikely that the team would have won the Stanley Cup. Knowing that having that type of depth is important, the Penguins made their decision to keep both goaltenders past the trade deadline. The decision may already be paying dividends, however, as the Penguins were forced to scratch Murray late in warmups due to a lower-body injury.
With Fleury starting the game, the veteran pushed aside 31 of 32 shots and backstopped the Penguins to a 3-1 victory in game one against the Columbus Blue Jackets. Having this kind of depth could prove crucial for the Penguins, especially if Murray is set to miss any extended period of time.
The decision to keep Fleury could come back to bite the Penguins after the season should they fail to win the Stanley Cup and ultimately lose the 22-year-old rookie to the Vegas Golden Knights all in the same calendar year. If they win the Stanley Cup due to Fleury’s contributions, however, that loss wouldn’t sting nearly as much. There is no denying that losing a 22-year-old rookie goaltender who has produced as well as Murray has would be a significant hit to any franchise – but consecutive Stanley Cup victories and three since 2009 would make it a more tolerable blow.
No Guarantees Murray is Taken
For the Penguins, the Expansion Draft will prove important. The obvious choice right now for the Golden Knights from the Penguins rests in the form of Murray. The Expansion Draft comes with a few caveats, however. One of those caveats includes potential trades that teams could make with Vegas to persuade them to forego taking a certain player, and instead, drafting somebody else. The Penguins have no shortage of young talent contributing on their team who will be available in the Expansion Draft. If the Penguins can somehow convince Vegas to accept a trade to ensure they take one of the Penguins’ other players, the decision to keep Fleury could prove to be even more valuable.
Vegas could decide that no additional trade piece is worth leaving Murray on the board. For the Penguins, however, the decision to compete for a Stanley Cup now was a smart one. In the NHL, as is the case in all professional sports, there are no guarantees. Few teams have looked as good as the Penguins this season. Knowing that this year’s team is a legitimate contender meant that the Penguins needed to go all-in now, and worry about later, later.
It’s never easy to balance winning versus remaining competitive. For the Penguins, the ability to remain competitive is easier with bonafide stars like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang – when healthy and Fleury. Finding the complementary pieces has been important since their 2009 Cup-winning team. It took seven years, but now that the Penguins have seemingly found the perfect pieces to complement their consistent core, the priority becomes winning as many championships as possible before the window starts to close.
Tough Journey Ahead
Despite winning the first game of the series, the Penguins still have a long way to go before winning another Stanley Cup. The Blue Jackets are still a very good team, despite recent struggles, who will likely make their journey a rocky one. In addition to the Blue Jackets, the Penguins would also be forced to compete against two of the other team’s in the Eastern Conference playoff picture. Those teams include the Washington Capitals, Montreal Canadiens, New York Rangers, Ottawa Senators, Boston Bruins and the Toronto Maple Leafs before ever even getting into the Stanley Cup Finals to compete against a stacked Western Conference.
Only time will tell if the Penguins will win the Stanley Cup or not, but the decision to keep Fleury is already paying dividends. Having that type of depth is crucial at this time of year. With Fleury already being tested in the first game of the series and slated to start the second game, there can be no second guessing Penguins’ general manager Jim Rutherford at this point of the season. Right now, winning is all that matters.