Oddly enough, with just 50 NHL games played, goalie Casey DeSmith is about as invaluable to the Pittsburgh Penguins as anyone else on the roster. Especially the other goalies.
The Case for Keeping Casey DeSmith
Having proven himself as one of the best backups, not just behind starter Matt Murray, but in the entire NHL, DeSmith is a commodity. He’s certainly more of one than Tristan Jarry, who’s vying to steal his roster spot. Hell, DeSmith may even be worth more to the Penguins than Murray himself. Just bear with me.
All three Penguins goalies must pass through waivers, prompting general manager Jim Rutherford to publicly weight his options. He’s admitted to discussing the possibility of a trade rather than risk losing one, presumably Jarry, for nothing as another team’s waiver claim. The question is with whom should Rutherford part ways?
It would be a relatively simple answer had Murray been more consistent over the course of his four seasons with the Penguins. He’s the undisputed starter at this point having won two Stanley Cups already despite being just 25. However, there are other factors that must be considered, namely how Murray started off last season incredibly slowly. Over the first month and a half, Murray went 4-5-1 with an .877 save percentage.
Murray Is No Sure Thing
Murray only returned to action a month after that rough stretch, having been put on injured reserve with a lower-body injury. From that point on, he was relatively dominant, finishing the season with a .919 save percentage. However, Murray’s injury saga raises a few key concerns. For example, the injuries have started accumulating, with Murray having missed significant amounts of time in each of his three full seasons with the club. That has to raise a red flag or two from a durability standpoint.
Secondly, in spite of the two Stanley Cups, it’s hard to know who the real Matt Murray is because of his young age. Is he the 32-10-4 goalie who earned a .923 save percentage in 2016-17, his first full season in the league? Or is he the goalie who went 27-16-3 with a mediocre .907 save percentage the following season, with his struggles continuing into the next campaign as mentioned earlier? Finally, seeing as the Penguins successfully rode DeSmith over that month he missed last season, do they even need Murray?
DeSmith went 7-2-2 with an above-average .916 save percentage over that span. He finished with the same mark and an overall record of 15-11-5, hinting at a level of consistency the Penguins just don’t get with Murray.
DeSmith vs. Murray
Clearly, Murray’s highs are far above and beyond what DeSmith can deliver on a regular basis. However, that’s technically true of Murray himself, too… and his lows are arguably much worse. With a cap hit that’s three times as large as DeSmith’s ($3.75 million) that’s only going to get (much) bigger once he becomes a restricted free agent at the end of this coming season, Murray’s future with the Pens is a topic worth discussing. For the record, DeSmith ($1.25 million) is securely under contract for the next three seasons.
The mere mention of Murray in trade rumors would have justifiably been inconceivable even a year ago, even as he struggled. However, consider the fact Penguins need every dollar of cap space they can spare. This is a team that has a projected cap hit over the $81.5 million ceiling. This is a team that replaced Phil Kessel with a younger Phil Kessel in Alex Galchenyuk, primarily for cap considerations…. and Galchenyuk is a pending unrestricted free agent who can walk away at the end of the season!
Needless to say, every Penguin not named Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin is likely available to be traded. That obviously includes Murray in theory, but the price has to be commensurate with his value, which should be high considering his accomplishments and the fact he’s still very young with potentially a bright future ahead of him. Seeing as the goalie trade market isn’t what it was, that’s easier said than done.
To illustrate the point, there were just four goalies hypothetically available at the end of last season. That’s not a big number and only one, James Reimer, who arguably has had the most successful track record of the bunch, got dealt. All the Florida Panthers got in exchange from the Carolina Hurricanes? A salary dump in the form of Scott Darling and a sixth-round pick.
Obviously Murray is not Reimer. He’s better. However, there’s not a lot of demand out there. Maybe the Ottawa Senators or Detroit Red Wings start looking to the future for when Craig Anderson and Jimmy Howard hit unrestricted free agency, but Murray, even if Rutherford does dangle him, isn’t the only goalie available. It’s just not a seller’s market.
So, that leaves the Penguins with two realistic options:
- Resign yourself to getting little more than cap relief in exchange for Murray or
- Send the unproven Jarry down and cross your fingers no one claims him.
Murray vs. Jarry
The Penguins may be high on the 24-year-old Jarry, but the former second-round pick may not have a place with the Penguins right now, if it’s not with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. He’s also shown mere flashes of greatness in the minors, whereas the 28-year-old DeSmith posted better numbers on the whole during his minor-league career.
Jarry, who only has a cap hit of $675,000, will also be a restricted free agent at the end of season. If he does end up in the backup role instead of DeSmith, he’ll also end up in position to command a significant raise, which would only put the Penguins back at square one.
Speaking practically, Jarry’s hardly the team’s goalie of the future if Murray is just a single year older. The only way Jarry does eventually become the Penguins’ starter is if they trade Murray and there may not be a point in time that makes more sense to do that than now, conveniently ignoring the general lack of demand for goalies. However, as little as the Pens would get for Murray, they’d get even less for Jarry. It makes as much sense as waiving him.
It’s a hard decision, but one thing should be clear: Whether it’s backing up Murray or serving as a stop-gap starter as he helps to bring Jarry along, DeSmith shouldn’t be going anywhere. It’s not that he’s better than Murray, because he isn’t. It’s not that he has more of a pedigree than Jarry, because he doesn’t.
It’s because he gives the Penguins the best bang for their buck. Considering the Penguins’ precarious cap situation, that makes DeSmith as good as gold. It doesn’t get better than that, as far as commodities go. You don’t trade gold in times of uncertainty. You hold on to it for dear life, because gold holds its value. DeSmith has plenty value to spare.
After 10 years of writing hockey, Ryan decided it was as good a time as any to actually join The Hockey Writers for the 2014-15 season. Having appeared as a guest on such programs as CBC Radio One’s Daybreak, Ryan has written for such publications as the Montreal Gazette and Bleacher Report and worked for the NHL itself and his hometown Montreal Canadiens. He currently covers the Habs for THW as a columnist.