In 2017, Matt Murray seemed like the Pittsburgh Penguins’ goalie of the future, winning back-to-back Stanley Cups as a rookie and earning the starting job over a future Hall of Famer. But an untimely cold streak led to his departure from the first place he called home in the NHL.
While Murray’s tenure in Pittsburgh was shorter than expected, it was packed with the highest highs and lowest lows. As he looks forward to a fresh start, let’s take a look back at his journey and how we got to this point.
Before making the leap to the NHL, the Penguins picked Murray in the third round of the 2012 NHL Draft. He spent two more seasons in the OHL with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds before joining the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins where he began to make noise.
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In his first full season with the WBS Penguins, Murray led the AHL in multiple categories and took home a handful of awards. He finished the 2014-15 season with a 25-10-3 record, a league-leading goals-against average (1.58 GAA) and save percentage (.941 SV%). He set a team record with 12 shutouts, one shy of the all-time AHL record set by Jason LeBarera with 13. Murray also broke the AHL record for the longest shutout streak at 304:11 which lasted a month from Feb. 8 to Mar. 8.
When the season ended, Murray was voted the Dudley “Red” Garrett Memorial Award recipient as the AHL’s most outstanding rookie. He was also chosen as the Aldege “Baz” Bastien Memorial Award winner which goes to the league’s best goaltender. He and former Pens netminder Jeff Zatkoff also won the Harry “Hap” Holmes Memorial Award, awarded to the team with the best GAA. Murray’s .941 and Zatkoff’s .910 earned the Penguins their third “Hap” Holmes Award in a row, and fourth in five seasons. The honors didn’t stop there. Murray was named to the AHL’s All-Rookie Team and the First All-Star Team.
Murray’s success continued into the 2015-16 season when he boasted a 20-9-1 record and a .931 SV%. On Dec. 19, 2015, he played his first game in the NHL and played four games before being briefly sent back to the AHL. In late February, he was brought back to Pittsburgh and officially wrapped up his AHL career. He finished his time in the AHL with a 45-20-4 record.
Two-Time Champion as a Rookie
Murray joined the NHL Penguins as a backup to long-time starter Marc-Andre Fleury. In that role, he played 13 games, finishing the regular season with a 9-2-1 record. It wasn’t until the 2016 Playoffs that the NHL took notice of the budding star.
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Fleury and Murray both suffered injuries prior to the start of the post-season, leaving Zatkoff to start the first two games against the New York Rangers. Murray returned to take charge as the Penguins’ starter for Game 3 and wouldn’t leave the crease until being pulled from Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Final against the Tampa Bay Lightning. Fleury played in Game 5, after an overtime loss, and on the brink of elimination, Murray was back as starter and for the remainder of their championship run.
Murray finished the 2016 Playoffs with 15 wins, tying the all-time record for most by a rookie goalie in a single postseason.
In the 2016-17 season, the Penguins decided to use Murray and Fleury as a 1a and 1b option, rather than solidifying one as a starter. Murray played in 49 games, while Fleury played 38. Between the two, the Penguins picked up 50 wins en route to another playoff berth.
Still considered a rookie, Murray finished the 2016-17 season with a 32-10-4 record, a .923 SV%, and 2.41 GAA. He also ended the season fourth in Calder Trophy voting as the NHL’s top rookie.
Going into the 2017 Playoffs, Murray was injured, giving Fleury the starting role. Fleury had struggled in recent postseasons. Between 2010 and 2016, he was in net for three first-round exits and a pair of second-round losses. During the Penguins’ two deepest playoff runs in that time, Fleury was not considered the starter: Murray played most games during their 2016 Cup victory; and Tomas Vokoun carried the Penguins to the Eastern Conference Final in 2013.
While Fleury started the 2017 Playoffs with series victories over the Columbus Blue Jackets and Washington Capitals, Murray returned from injury and Fleury’s faults were getting exposed. In Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals, Fleury was pulled after giving up four goals in just under 13 minutes to the Ottawa Senators. That was Fleury’s last game as a Pittsburgh Penguin.
Murray took over the reins and backstopped the Penguins to their fifth Stanley Cup, his second as a rookie. During the on-ice celebration, Fleury passed the Cup to Murray, a proverbial passing of the torch.
Playing in Fleury’s Shadow
From that moment on it was Murray’s team. He became the undisputed No. 1 goalie after the Vegas Golden Knights selected Fleury in the Expansion Draft. Fans wanted Fleury to play his whole career in Pittsburgh, but as he aged, Murray showed he was a younger, cheaper option. Murray had the ability to be a winner.
It seemed no matter how well Murray played, he was never going to get the respect he deserved. Taking the starting job from Fleury never sat well with a lot of the Pittsburgh fan base, whether or not it was best for the team. Murray was put under a microscope by critics, and every little fault was exploited.
Murray was a capable No. 1 in the NHL, but the more he played the more his inconsistencies showed. At the age of 23, he had his first season as a full-time starter, and it was not a cakewalk. He missed time for multiple injuries throughout the year, including a concussion late in the season. Murray also took time off in January 2018 following the death of his father. His final numbers for the season reflected his struggles, with only 45 starts and a .907 SV%, a career-low at the time.
On paper, 2018-19 seemed to be a bounce-back season for Murray, but the injuries continued. He ended the season with a 29-14-6 record and .919 save percentage, which was an improvement, but still wasn’t at the level of which he was capable. His struggles carried into the 2019 Playoffs when the Penguins were swept by the New York Islanders in the first round. Murray was the starter in all four games.
Then the infamous 2019-20 season began. Murray started hot and was looking to return to form. He hit a skid that opened the door for backup Tristan Jarry to make a statement. Jarry not only made a statement, but he finished with a .921 SV%, while Murray didn’t crack .900.
Murray was given the honor of the starting job for the 2020 Playoffs, it didn’t amount to much as the Penguins were bounced by the Montreal Canadiens in four games in the play-in round.
The End of the Road in Pittsburgh
Not long into the 2020 offseason, former general manager Jim Rutherford vowed that there would be changes. He never came out and said Murray would be moved but everyone had a sense it would happen. Jarry had burst onto the scene stopping just about every puck fired his way, and leading to his first All-Star Game appearance.
The pandemic has forced NHL general managers to take a closer look at how they spend their money, and both Murray and Jarry were due for new contracts. Jarry was clearly the cheaper option, and the better goaltender during the season. He re-signed with the Penguins on a three-year, $3.5 million contract, while Murray agreed to terms with the Senators for four years and $6.25 million a year.
Murray said that he is “nothing but thankful” for his time in Pittsburgh. He made memories that will last a lifetime and Penguins fans must feel the same. It is always better to remember the good times rather than the bad, and look forward to a bright new future; a future with Jarry as the Penguins’ starter and Murray in an Ottawa Senators uniform.
Nick Horwat is a graduate of Point Park University and was born and raised in Pittsburgh. A lifelong Penguins fan that has been watching and going to games for as long as he can remember.