The Ottawa Senators rebuild is progressing in the right direction, with plenty of promising young players beginning to emerge, but the team now needs starting goaltender Matt Murray to step up in order to take the next step.
When the Senators made the trade with the Pittsburgh Penguins to land Murray, giving up prospect Jonathan Gruden and a second-round pick in the 2020 Draft, the hope was that the team would have their number one spot locked up for the next few years.
The team was so confident of this fact that they handed Murray a four-year extension with an average annual value of $6.25 million, with his base salary increasing each year and a modified no-trade clause kicking in this summer.
During the 2021 season, however, the Senators did not get the goaltender they were hoping to have replace long-time starter Craig Anderson.
The 27-year-old Thunder Bay, Ontario native arrived in the Canadian capital with a legitimate Stanley Cup pedigree to his name, having made a big impression while between the pipes for the Penguins.
Murray’s first two seasons in the NHL, between 2015 and 2017, saw him emerge as the Penguins’ starter in relief of long-time legend Marc-André Fleury and saw him lift the Stanley Cup in consecutive years – posting some impressive numbers along the way.
His first stretch in the playoffs saw him play 21 games, winning 15 of them, with a goals-against average (GAA) of just 2.08 and a save percentage (SV%) of .923 – seeing him lift Lord Stanley’s Cup at the tender age of 22.
The following year saw Murray play 49 games in the regular season and 11 games in the post-season as he dealt with some injury issues, but he once again was exceptional – posting a GAA of just 1.70 and a SV% of .937 on route to his second cup in just his second season.
While the aging Penguins have been unable to get back to the Stanley Cup Final, Murray still averaged solid numbers across his time in Pennsylvania, though his final year with the American team suggested that a change of scenery was definitely needed.
What Happened Last Season?
The Penguins opted to ship Murray out to Ottawa as they hoped Tristan Jarry and Casey DeSmith would be enough of a tandem to take the team forward, especially with stars such as Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin still on the team.
For the Senators, it meant the goaltender position was secured for the next four years at least, with Murray still young by goalie standards in the NHL and with enough pedigree to date to give hope that improvements could be made with the young, upstart Canadian team.
The 2021 campaign was unusual for most players around the league, and for goaltenders, who are creatures of habit and prefer to be settled, moving to a new team under the COVID restrictions will certainly have made settling in a longer adjustment than usual.
Murray played 27 games for the Senators in 2021, posting abysmal numbers by his standards, with a career-low SV% of .893 and a GAA of 3.38 – far below what was expected of him as a starting goaltender in the NHL.
Murray did suffer an injury that side-lined him for around 14 games, but he seemed to improve towards the end of the season, in line with the team’s overall improved play – giving hope that the two-time cup winner can recapture his best performances now that he is settled into his environment.
Hopes For This Campaign
For the Senators, the hope for Murray will certainly be improvements from what he produced last season – with even average goaltending enough to help the team move forward in their rebuild. Posting a SV% around .915 should be a realistic goal for Murray to work towards, building on the improvements seen towards the end of the 2021 season.
Having a settled environment can do a lot to help players, especially goaltenders, and Murray will now be fully settled into life with Ottawa and be ready to take on a full 82-game regular season where all teams will be back in their regular divisions and normality appears to be returning to the league.
The Senators have a promising goaltender in Filip Gustavsson, who already showed flashes of what he could do in the NHL last season, and the hope is that he can take over the reins in the near future, but that largely depends on how well, and how long, Murray can perform with the starting role.
His contract makes it difficult to do anything except play him, and he needs to live up to that significant number if he doesn’t want to lose his position to the young Gustavsson, with this job in Ottawa likely one of the few starting spots left for him to compete for.
If Murray can improve, however, he will extend his career as a starting goaltender and can help provide some stability for a young Senators team that continues to grow and has so much potential thanks to a stable of truly talented prospects knocking on the door.
James is a British sports writer covering the Ottawa Senators for The Hockey Writers.