Penguins’ Goaltending Puzzle

The Penguins’ positional strengths and weaknesses are apparent. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are the best duo at center in pro hockey. Kris Letang is an elite puck-mover on the blue line; and Erik Gudbranson and Jack Johnson slow down the defense. How does the goaltending situation look?

Matt Murray

Matt Murray rose from relative obscurity in 2016 to take the starting job from Marc-André Fleury. He anchored two runs to the Stanley Cup and won his first seven playoff series as the starting netminder. He walks into the new season as the unquestioned first-string goalie.

Last season, Murray played a career high 50 games while posting a 2.69 goals-against average (GAA) and a .919 save percentage (SV%). The postseason matchup with the New York Islanders went poorly for Murray, who had an 0-4 record, a 3.02 GAA, and a .909 SV%. However, no one on the Penguins looked convincing and Murray was hung out to dry, considering his 31 and 32-save performances in Games 2 and 3. Unless an injury happens in camp or the preseason, Murray will stand between the pipes when the Buffalo Sabres visit PPG Paints Arena to begin the regular season on Oct. 3.

Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Matt Murray
Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Matt Murray (Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

The only wrinkle with Murray? His contract expires after this season. He makes $3.75 million and will likely get a pay raise on his next contract. The 25-year-old is a restricted free agent (RFA) at season’s end and is eligible for arbitration. With recent raises for Sergei Bobrovsky and Andrei Vasilevskiy, along with a tight RFA market this offseason, unless Murray and the Penguins agree to a contract extension before next season, negotiations could be contentious in the summer of 2020.

Murray’s agent, Robert Hooper, also represents St. Louis Blues goaltender Jordan Binnington. This offseason, after a Stanley Cup victory, Hooper negotiated a new contract for Binnington worth $4.4 million per season over the next two seasons. That’s a $3.8 million raise over Binnington’s last contract.

This Penguins management group knows how valuable Murray is to the team after moving on from a future Hall of Famer for him. They also know how challenging the contract negotiation will be. An extension before the season would be beneficial but financially challenging considering the Penguins’ tight cap situation. For now, though, Murray is the starting netminder.

Casey DeSmith

Pittsburgh hasn’t drafted a goaltender since Fillip Gustavson was selected in the second round of the 2016 NHL Entry Draft. Gustavson is now in the Ottawa Senators system and was the first goalie selected by the Penguins in three years (since Tristan Jarry). The Penguins have added to their depth in net with undrafted signings and free agent pickups. Casey DeSmith, an undrafted signee from the University of New Hampshire in 2015, is a textbook example.

Pittsburgh Penguins Casey DeSmith Minnesota Wild Luke Kunin
Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Casey DeSmith. (AP Photo/Hannah Foslien)

DeSmith bounced between the Wheeling Nailers (the Penguins’ ECHL affiliate) and the AHL Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins in his first two professional seasons and earned the open spot as the Penguins’ backup when Fleury departed for the Vegas Golden Knights. Last season, DeSmith performed well, appearing in 36 games and posting a 2.75 GAA and a .919 SV%. He didn’t see any action in the postseason.

The 28-year-old goaltender’s contract is worth $1.25 million per season for the next three years, slating DeSmith to be a Penguin for the foreseeable future. It is unclear if he could be a starting goaltender for the Penguins or if another NHL team could see him in that role. He might have trade value if the Penguins can move one of the bad contracts off their blue line or if they need a bargaining chip at the deadline. For now, he is the Penguins’ backup and deservedly so.

Those two are the only goalies on the Penguins’ NHL roster but the team also has three netminders under contract.

Tristan Jarry

Of the young goaltenders, Jarry is the most intriguing at camp. For one, the 24-year-old from Surrey, British Columbia was a second-round pick (44th overall) of the Penguins at the 2013 Entry Draft. He shined in the Western Hockey League for the Edmonton Oil Kings and won the Memorial Cup in 2014.

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

He’s played in the Penguins system since 2015, mainly for Wilkes-Barre but also for the NHL club. He played 26 games in the 2017-18 season, posting a .908 SV% and a 2.77 GAA. Last season, he only played in two games with the big club but took the ice 47 times for Wilkes-Barre, where he posted a .915 SV%.

So far, Jarry has handled himself reasonably well at the AHL level. He’s never slipped below a .900 SV% and climbed as high as .925 in 2017. If the contract situation with Murray goes sideways or if DeSmith departs via trade before his contract expires, Jarry is next on the depth chart. He will likely be the starter in the AHL to start the season and can fill in for the NHL squad in emergency situations.

However, Jarry’s contract situation is curious. He’s making $675,000 and is only signed for this season. If he fits into the Penguins’ long-term plans, management should sign him before the summer mess begins. He will also have to clear waivers to be sent down to the minors and will be a desirable target for NHL teams hungry for a young backup when preseason cuts come into focus.

The Penguins will be lucky to keep him if they choose to send him to Wilkes-Barre and call him up on anything other than an emergency basis. Depending on how the Penguins handle their depth goalie positions moving forward, Jarry is the most interesting player to watch in camp.

Emil Larmi

At this point in the depth chart, the conversation turns from known players to unknown. Larmi is only 22 years old and has no professional experience on North American ice. His NHL readiness is a question. His talent? Less so.

Larmi has played in the Liiga, the top professional league in his native Finland, since 2017 for HPK. Last season was easily his best when he posted a 1.94 GAA and a .909 SV% in 36 regular-season games. In the postseason, the 6-foot netminder raised his game with 18 starts, a 1.72 GAA, and a .932 SV% to help his team to an upset run to the team’s second Liiga Championship. The man is a capable goaltender.

He’s only signed for $792,000 for the next two seasons and is waiver exempt this season. He has the most flexibility of all the young netminders and can be sent anywhere in the organization. Keep an eye on the young Finn, he may figure into the organization’s future.

Alex D’Orio

D’Orio is the youngest and least experienced netminder in camp. The 20-year-old from Sherbrooke, Quebec, played three seasons in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League for the Saint John Sea Dogs and the Baie-Comeau Drakkar last season. He only reached a .900 SV% once, in his first season with Saint John. That season he also posted his best record, 19-2-1, and the Sea Dogs lost only two games in the QMJHL Playoffs to claim the league championship. The team struggled the next two seasons, and his numbers suffered as a result.

He played for the Drakkar in 2018-19 and played well enough to catch Pittsburgh’s eye. They signed him as an undrafted free agent and D’Orio made gave his professional debut for Wilkes-Barre against the Bridgeport Sound Tigers on April 13. He recorded 28 saves on 33 shots, allowing five goals in a game in which Bridgeport outshot Wilkes-Barre in every period and had double-digit shots in each frame.

Alex D’Orio (David Connell / Saint John Sea Dogs)

D’Orio will have training camp to show what he has improved on, but he will be in the minors this season. He’s making $733,000 for the next three seasons and may grow into a solid pro, but it’s far too early to tell.

Minor League Veterans

In addition to the five goalies on NHL contracts, the Penguins have two professional veterans on minor-league contracts. Dustin Torkaski is on an AHL contract with Wilkes-Barre and Jordan Ruby is on an ECHL contract with the Wheeling Nailers.

Torkaski is the more experienced of the two but has only played short stints in the NHL. His career-high in games played was 17 with the Montreal Canadiens in 2015. Otherwise, he’s been a career AHLer with stints in San Diego, Hamilton, Norfolk, Lehigh Valley, Hartford, Charlotte, and now Wilkes-Barre.

The 29-year-old from Humboldt, Saskatchewan, has two Calder Cups to his name. He backstopped the Norfolk Admirals to the 2012 Calder Cup and helped the Charlotte Checkers to a championship win last season. He’ll serve a depth role in the organization this season and be a mentor to the young goaltenders who need to develop.

Ruby, meanwhile, is a 28-year-old from Tavistock, Ontario, who’s been a career ECHL player since graduating from the Rochester Institute of Technology in 2015. He played a career-high 27 games in Wheeling last season and figures to be a veteran piece of the puzzle this season.

The final verdict? Pittsburgh has a clear starting tandem and a few intriguing pieces for the future. General manager Jim Rutherford has his work cut out for him, negotiating a new contract for Murray and figuring out how to keep and maximize Jarry and Larmi. The Penguins net contains some of the most intriguing camp stories on the team.