The NHL offseason has entered arguably its slowest news month — August. Free agent signings aren’t as common, trades are usually wrapped up, and organizations are usually pretty happy with their team about a month away from training camp.
The Pittsburgh Penguins are no different this month. Every free agent signing they wanted to make has been made and the lineup is pretty close to set. NHL roster spots have been filled by Brock McGinn and Danton Heinen, as well as a depth piece with the return of Dominik Simon.
There is a change that Pens’ fans have been waiting for, however, and that’s a move at the goaltender position. Since Pittsburgh’s season ended after only six playoff games, fans and media alike have been speculating who could join the team to play with, or even replace, Tristan Jarry. Well, folks, it seems very likely that no goalie moves will be made by Ron Hextall and the Penguins. Fans will most likely see Jarry and Casey DeSmith return as the goaltending duo for 2021-22.
When the season ended prematurely, both Hextall and Brian Burke were quick to defend Jarry and reassure everyone that he still has the skill to be with the Penguins. “Jarry was the reason we won the division,” Burke said in the first postseason press conference.
“We wouldn’t have been where we were without Tristan… He’s going to learn from this and he’s going to come back better form this in September,” Hextall said about bringing Jarry back next season.
There may have been glaring flaws in Jarry’s play in the postseason, but that doesn’t mean a team should immediately axe a 26-year-old goaltender. Fans have to get past the postseason blunders and acknowledge that it was his play that won them the hardest division in the league last year and got them into the playoffs as a No.1 seed.
Hextall is a former Conn Smythe-winning goalie himself as the playoff MVP in 1987, so he is aware of how volatile the positon can be. In an early August press conference, he said he is confident that Jarry will bounce back and have a great 2021-22 season. “I feel strongly that [Jarry is] going to bounce back and be a very good goaltender for us throughout the entire year.”
The Penguins’ management group have made it very clear they still believe in Jarry as the starter and DeSmith as the backup. With everything they’ve said on record, it’s a wonder how people came to the conclusion that they were looking to make a change.
No Free Agent Goalie Signings
A new goalie for the team was one of the big changes everyone assumed the Penguins would make. Whether it was a new starter to take over for Jarry or a veteran to play as backup, there were quite a few names the Penguins could have landed. Now, a few weeks removed from the start of free agency, no moves for a goalie. Filip Lindberg was signed to an entry-level contract, but he isn’t an NHL goalie, yet.
Hextall and the Penguins stood pat as goalie options got signed all around the league; Linus Ullmark went to the Boston Bruins. Philipp Grubauer signed a massive deal with the Seattle Kraken. Petr Mrazek joined the Toronto Maple Leafs. Frederik Andersen and Antti Raanta are both heading to the Carolina Hurricanes.
This year’s free agent class had multiple players that could have been good additions to the Penguins’ goaltending core, but no moves were made. With no goalies signed, aside from Lindberg, Hextall again showed his confidence in Jarry as the guy in Pittsburgh. There just weren’t any options left for Pens fans to hang their hat on. That was until a certain veteran goalie was dealt without warning.
No Move for Fleury
Jim Rutherford, during the 2020 offseason, tried desperately to create a deal that saw the return of longtime Penguins’ cornerstone Marc-Andre Fleury. The Vegas Golden Knights never budged and Fleury went on to win his first Vezina Trophy as the league’s best goalie. Shortly after receiving such an honor, the Golden Knights repaid him by trading him to the Chicago Blackhawks for next to nothing.
Fleury may have been traded to the Blackhawks, but there was no certainty he would play there. It was well known he wanted to finish his career in Vegas or Pittsburgh; Chicago never entered the picture, and given the off-ice issues with the Blackhawks, he had every right not to report to the team. Pittsburgh fans and media were in a frenzy and the path to Fleury’s return with the Penguins never seemed clearer.
It seemed like Fleury’s only options were play with the Blackhawks, get traded to the Penguins, or retire. Everyone knew he didn’t want to retire, but there was a high probability that he would refuse to play in Chicago. It was the perfect storm; the return of Flower was inevitable.
Hextall shot down the possibility of Fleury’s return within a day of the initial trade. If nothing came out of the possibility of acquiring the reigning Vezina winner, odds are that nothing’s changing in Pittsburgh.
Don’t Lose Hope in Jarry
Sure, a big reason for the Penguins’ early exit may have been Jarry’s play, but it has to be put into perspective. In his first season as a full-time NHL starter, he put up respectable numbers — 25 wins (fourth in the NHL), nine losses, and a .909 save percentage.
A move within the position that Hextall did make was relieving goalie coach Mike Buckley of his duties and replacing him with Andy Chiodo. Previously, Chiodo was the Penguins’ goaltending development coach. Maybe a lateral move, but something incremental like that could aid in a goalie’s development. Jarry will be under a new coach and with that will come some changes. Obviously, he is the one on the ice making the saves and not the coaches, but anything to boost the confidence of a goalie about to enter his prime will be an asset.
If the Penguins shipped off every goalie after one bad season, they wouldn’t be where they are today. Sure, the team was bad, but Fleury started his career 17-41-8 in two seasons — 13-27-6 in 2005-06, his first season as a full-time starter. Imagine where this franchise is if he gets dealt that offseason.
Fans have to let goalies get their footing. Everyone loves to talk about how mysterious the goalie position is in hockey, but hates when a goalie can’t get 82 wins a season. Everyone just needs to take a deep breath, settle down, and understand that Jarry can do better. He himself knows he needs to be better than he was in the playoffs.
“I think there’s a lot of things I would do different,” Jarry said. “I think next year there’s a lot of room for improvement for me.”
Every time Hextall speaks, he shows confidence and says that Jarry and DeSmith will be returning to the Penguins next season. Media has been trying too hard to read between the lines and pick out why a move or signing will be made. A move just isn’t feasible at this point, and that’s not a bad thing.
Jarry has the capabilities to be a starter in the NHL, but fans just have to give him a chance. Given the words and actions from Penguins management, it’s hard not to see how the rumors of a goalie move have mostly been brought upon by the fans who expect perfection and nothing less.
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.