After allowing five goals in an overtime loss to the New York Islanders on Tuesday, Matt Murray has now gone 0-1-2 over his last three starts. During that span, he’s allowed 10 goals on 90 shots while the Pittsburgh Penguins have lost each of those games by exactly one goal. Is it time for the Penguins to make a change in net?
Since leading back-to-back Stanley Cup-winning teams and finishing fourth in Calder Trophy voting after the 2016-17 season, Murray hasn’t lived up to the hype he created for himself. Over the last three seasons, the 25-year-old has posted a combined .913 save percentage and 2.76 goals-against average (GAA). He ranks 21st out of 39 NHL goalies with at least 75 games played during that span for both categories.
Murray is in the final season of his three-year, $11.25 million contract that he signed in Oct. 2016. He’ll become a restricted free agent at the end of this season. At the time of signing that deal, the $3.75 million average annual value (AAV) took up 5.14 percent of the team’s overall cap. With the résumé he’s built during his young career, Murray will need a raise.
Over the last two seasons, the NHL salary cap has jumped from $75 million to $81.5 million, a $6.5 million increase. Next season’s cap won’t be decided until sometime next summer, but we can use a rough estimate of $84 million, a $2.5 million increase from this season. Even if Murray’s cap hit percentage remains unchanged, he’d be looking at a $4.32 million AAV, and that’s an incredibly low estimate.
This offseason, the Islanders signed Seymon Varlamov to a four-year, $20 million ($5 million AAV) deal. Varlamov has been fairly comparable to Murray over the last three seasons, ranking 16th in save percentage and 23rd in GAA. Murray is also six years younger. On the open market, Murray should be looking at a deal worth over $5.5 million AAV.
Murray’s status as a restricted free agent should help his trade value as he’s not a true rental. However, the money the Penguins would save without having to re-sign him would go a long way in securing the team’s other free agents. Justin Schultz, Jared McCann, Dominik Kahun, Alex Galchenyuk, and several more skaters will need new contracts this offseason. On top of that, the Penguins will need to make a decision on Murray’s potential replacement: Tristan Jarry.
Jarry Looks Ready to Take the Reins
The Penguins came into the 2019-20 NHL season with three capable goaltenders: Murray, Jarry, and Casey DeSmith. Just before the start of the regular season, DeSmith was surprisingly placed on waivers and sent to AHL Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. He was the team’s primary backup last season but head coach Mike Sullivan and general manager Jim Rutherford felt that Jarry earned that position out of training camp.
They were right.
Jarry has been stellar in his five appearances this season, recording a 1.99 GAA and .938 save percentage. In his most recent action, the 24-year-old turned away 32-of-33 shots in a 6-1 blowout win over the Toronto Maple Leafs. He earned his first win since Oct. 13 where he allowed just two goals on 29 shots against the Winnipeg Jets.
So far, all four of Jarry’s starts this season have come on the second game of back-to-back sets. His only other appearance came on Nov. 4 after Murray allowed three goals on 11 shots before being pulled. In Jarry’s two starts that resulted in losses, he still stopped 66-of-70 shots but received just two combined goals of support.
Jarry leads all goaltenders with at least five appearances with a .958 save percentage during 5-on-5 play. His 4.89 goals-saved above average ranks 10th. For comparison, Murray ranks 45th and 50th in those two categories, respectively. Jarry has also registered better save percentages against high-danger, medium-danger, and low-danger shots:
Murray: .837 HD SV%, .913 MD SV%, .942 LD SV%
Jarry: .895 HD SV%, .972 MD SV%, .962 LD SV%
The Penguins have another back-to-back scheduled this week with the Islanders on Thursday and the New Jersey Devils on Friday, guaranteeing another start for Jarry. If he outperforms Murray once again, Sullivan may be forced to give him more playing time and phase him into the No. 1 goalie job if he proves he can handle the workload.
Which Teams Could Be a Fit for Murray?
Again, because Murray is just 25 years old and will be a restricted free agent, teams may be more interested in acquiring him rather than a typical rental pick-up. He’s a proven NHL starter with an established history of winning; it just might be time for a change of scenery. Which potential buyers could be the right spot for him to land?
San Jose Sharks
Despite entering the season with high expectations, the San Jose Sharks find themselves with a 10-11-1 record and three points out of a wild card spot in the Western Conference. A big reason for that is the team’s .881 save percentage, ranking 30th in the league. Both Martin Jones and Aaron Dell have posted save percentages under .890 on the season. Murray would be a dramatic upgrade over both.
The Sharks have plenty of superstar firepower between guys such as Brent Burns, Erik Karlsson, and Logan Couture; it wouldn’t be surprising to see them dig their team out of this hole with some more consistent goaltending. One thing that may hold the Sharks back from a potential trade for Murray is their cap situation. They’re handcuffed by several large contracts and don’t have much cheap, controllable talent. Re-signing Murray could prove to be difficult next offseason.
New Jersey Devils
After having arguably the best offseason of any NHL team, the Devils also find themselves in a disappointing place at the quarter season mark. They’re 7-9-4 and six points out of an Eastern Conference playoff spot. Like the Sharks, the Devils’ goaltending can get most of the blame; their .882 team save percentage ranks 28th in the league and they recently waived veteran Cory Schneider after he posted a horrendous .852 save percentage in six starts.
The team’s new starter, 22-year-old MacKenzie Blackwood, has looked better as of late but his .899 save percentage leaves much to be desired. He held the Penguins to just one goal on 39 shots on Nov. 15 but has allowed eight goals on 62 shots in two starts since then. Is he the goalie of the future in New Jersey? Maybe, but as a pending restricted free agent himself, the Devils will need to make a decision on him quickly.
Finally, another team sitting six points out of a postseason position, the Minnesota Wild own an 8-11-2 record and a .892 team save percentage, good for 25th in the NHL. Devan Dubnyk and Alex Stalock have fallen into a bit of a tandem situation with neither one truly standing out. They’ve posted .893 and .911 save percentages, respectively. Stalock posted a .899 save percentage last season while Dubnyk’s numbers have progressively gotten worse over the last four seasons.
Both of those netminders are at least 32 years old and the Wild don’t have a high-end goaltending prospect in the system. The team’s cap space situation isn’t too bad, especially if they buy out Dubnyk’s final contract year next summer. The Wild could be the team that truly needs Murray the most.
Murray is undoubtedly good enough to remain the Penguins starting goaltender this season and even in the future. However, the team is blessed with two more cheaper netminders that should perform at a similar level. That, combined with the future cost of retaining Murray, should force Rutherford to see what the trade market has to offer for his two-time Stanley Cup-winning goalie.
Tyler Bowen is a University of South Florida graduate and lifelong hockey fan. Tyler covers the Pittsburgh Penguins for thehockeywriters.com. You can usually find him obsessing over his fantasy teams and looking for his next gambling tip.