Penguins Forced to Make Hard Decision in Net this Offseason

Before the 2019-20 NHL season was put on hold due to the spread of Coronavirus, the big debate within the Pittsburgh Penguins fanbase was ‘who should be the starting goalie come postseason?’ Now with the unsure future of the season, the question changes to ‘which goalie should be re-signed during the offseason?’

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Both Matt Murray and Tristan Jarry are restricted free agents (RFA) at the conclusion of the season, and it is time yet again for a goalie controversy in Pittsburgh. Both goaltenders have shown they are worthy of a starting job in the NHL, with Murray winning back-to-back Stanley Cups in 2016 and 2017 as a rookie, and Jarry becoming an unexpected All-Star.

Tristan Jarry Pittsburgh Penguins
Tristan Jarry, Pittsburgh Penguins (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

This is not the first time these two have played tug of war with each other over a starting job in their professional careers. In 2015, prior to Murray being called up to the NHL, the two played under current head coach Mike Sullivan with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (WBS) Penguins and Sullivan then described it as “healthy competition” between the two. Some things never change. 

When the 2019-20 season comes to an end, the Penguins will have at least six RFA’s, including Murray and Jarry, to make decisions on. It is safe to assume the goalie spot is top priority. Given the rest of the cap situation, it is highly unlikely the team will be able to keep both goalies around. 

Matt Murray, Bret Howden
Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Matt Murray stops New York Rangers center Brett Howden (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Not too long ago, it seemed almost certain that Murray was the goalie of the future for the Penguins. Now, things don’t seem that way. Let’s take a look at how we got to that point. 

Season in Review

Before the season began, general manager Jim Rutherford was making attempts at trading Jarry to shore up the goaltending depth chart. No one took a number on Jarry and he was staying with the organization. Then eyebrows were raised when Casey DeSmith cleared waivers and was sent to the AHL’s WBS Penguins, leaving the NHL Penguins with Murray and Jarry as the duo in net. 

For the first month of the season, Murray was the Penguins No. 1 goalie as he was putting up respectable numbers. In 12 games, Murray was 7-3-1 with a .917 save percentage (SV%)and a shutout. In that same span, Jarry saw a three-game losing streak. It looked like it was Murray’s net to keep. Then, mid-November came around.

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From Nov. 16 until the end of the 2019 calendar year, Jarry took over the starting job, playing in 14 games and going 12-2-0 with a .941 SV% and three shutouts. During the same time frame, Murray played nine games and was 2-3-3. Jarry would go on to be placed in the NHL All-Star Game and Murray was about to begin earning his starting job back.

The months of January and February saw both goalies display relative success. Murray went 6-4-1 including five games of a team six-game winning streak. In that span, Jarry posted a 7-6-1 record but closed with a three-game losing streak that stretched to a fourth game on March 8. 

Matt Murray Penguins
Matt Murray, Pittsburgh Penguins, January 2, 2018 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

At the season’s stoppage, the stats between the two are as follows:

Murray: 20-11-5, .899 SV%, 2.87 goals-against average

Jarry: 20-12-1, .921 SV%, 2.43 goals-against average

With all of that being said, the question begins to rise, who is the goalie of the future? 

Making a Case for Murray

The easy argument to make regarding keeping Murray around is that he’s won two Stanley Cups. A valid argument, Murray is a solidified winner who has found more success in five seasons than many players will see in their entire career. His postseason numbers speak for themselves, a record of 28-19 and a .921 SV%, and that includes getting swept by the New York Islanders last season. 

Matt Murray Pittsburgh Penguins
Matt Murray, Pittsburgh Penguins (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Murray’s regular-season numbers look just as stellar. In 199 regular-season games he has a record of 117-53-19 and a .914 SV%. Despite bouts with inconsistency and injuries, his numbers resemble those of some of the top starting goalies in the league. 

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A raise is on the horizon for Murray as well. He signed a three-year, $3.75 million contract during the 2016-17 season in between Cup victories. Of the 25 goalies that are currently making more than Murray, only seven of them have won a championship. Three have done it multiple times. 

Making a Case for Jarry

The 2019-20 season is Jarry’s second long-term stint in the NHL. His first came during the 2017-18 season where he played 26 games with the Penguins. In those games, he started 23 times and went 14-6-2 with a .908 SV%. Include those numbers with this season and a trio of miscellaneous games as a call-up, his career numbers read a record of 34-20-4 with a .914 SV%.

Tristan Jarry Penguins
Tristan Jarry, Pittsburgh Penguins, January 2, 2018 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Since beginning his NHL career, Jarry has yet to play 100 games or a single postseason game, so it’s harder to get a firm grasp on what kind of goalie he will be going forward. His career AHL numbers can lend a hand to his projection. In 141 games with the WBS Penguins, he has won 77 games and a career .915 SV%. Include that with his NHL numbers and the future seems bright for him as an NHL starter.

Jarry is finishing up a two-year deal worth $675,500. Given his experience level and the success he’s had in a short amount of time, he is primed for a bridge deal to show he can continue to grow as a starter. It is possible that Columbus Blue Jackets goalie Elvis Merzlikins may have set a scale for Jarry, as the two had similar seasons at similar points in their careers.

Can’t Have Both

Given the Penguins salary cap situation, the easy solution of ‘why not both?’ seems highly unlikely unless the team is willing to part ways with multiple high-quality assets. With the season on hold and the league not making money, it seems there will be no growth in the salary cap. With both Murray and Jarry deserving of a raise, fitting both goalies and a multitude of other RFA’s, it’s next to impossible to sign both.

While both have the exact same career save percentage, Jarry has the distinction of scoring a goal while with the WBS Penguins.

Tristan Jarry scores a goal with the WBS Penguins (WBS Penguins YouTube)

Having a winning tandem in net is vital for any team in the NHL. The Penguins have a surplus in talent in the crease: Murray and Jarry in Pittsburgh, DeSmith and Emil Larmi with the WBS Penguins. DeSmith has the talent to be in the NHL, and he will be next season as a quality backup for the Penguins.

Tristan Jarry Pittsburgh Penguins
Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Tristan Jarry (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Going into the start of the 2020-21 season, the Penguins should make Jarry the starting goalie and DeSmith as his backup. Jarry is going to have a lower price tag than Murray and has shown to be more consistent with his play. The team has been high on him ever since the 2013 Draft and have only seen improvement in his game. If his rate of improvement continues, he will be a standout goalie in the league and earn a long-term contract in the coming years.

Jarry has proven himself as a winner, ever since junior hockey. He backstopped his WHL Edmonton Oil Kings to a 44-14-3 record and a Memorial Cup victory in 2013-14.

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Selling Murray and his successes could reap great benefits for the Penguins, by way of picks or prospects. Bolstering a team in front of the consistent Jarry is the best option going forward. His cap hit will be more team-friendly and that is an asset in itself. Players like Jared McCann and Dominik Simon are RFAs at the end of the season, and the team will make attempts to keep them around. It will be a tough decision to make for Rutherford, but it’s not the first time he has had to part ways with a star-caliber goaltender.