Senators Burning Questions: Can Matt Murray Live to Expectations?

The Ottawa Senators are aiming to build off of a strong finish last season. Down the stretch, the team went 10-3-1 in their last 14 games and showed many positive signs that this would carry over into October. Players already in the system such as Drake Batherson and Josh Norris exploded onto the scene during their first full NHL seasons and newer faces like Artem Zub turned heads as well.

However, not all of the new faces made great impressions during their first season in Ottawa. Matt Murray, who was acquired by the Senators the last offseason and immediately signed to a four-year contract extension, had his fair share of ups and down last season. He was brought in for his experience and his ability to be a No. 1 goalie for them, but if he doesn’t rebound from his days as a Pittsburgh Penguin, things could get ugly fast for Murray. Can he live up to the expectations?

The 2020-21 Season

The very same day Murray was traded to Ottawa, general manager Pierre Dorion cleared up any questions in regards to the deal. “Without a doubt, Matt Murray will be our No. 1 goalie this year,” said Dorion. “I’ve spoken publicly that Anders Nilsson has had, and still has, symptoms from a concussion suffered in December, which is unfortunate. He can’t do stressful physical activities. So, at this point in time, you know we’ve been working on this trade with Jim Rutherford, who was great to deal with, and we were able to pull the trigger this morning.” Although Murray was brought in to be the Senators’ No. 1 goaltender for the next four years at minimum, his play would’ve said otherwise.

Matt Murray Ottawa Senators
Matt Murray, goaltender for the Ottawa Senators (Photo by Richard A. Whittaker/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Much like the problems of his past, the injuries, lack of consistency and confidence, had continued in Ottawa. After starting the year with a win over the Toronto Maple Leafs on Jan. 15 where he stopped 20 of 23 shots, Murray was only able to secure four more wins between then and Feb. 25. He was pulled a few times and at other times was forced to leave the net because of injury.

He missed three weeks in March having been placed on the injured reserve (IR) with an upper-body injury. Prior to going on the IR, Murray was 7-12-1 with a .880 save percentage (SV%). When he returned on April 14, he made 35 saves in a loss to the Winnipeg Jets but then went 3-0-0 over his next three starts against the Montreal Canadiens, Calgary Flames and Vancouver Canucks before ultimately being shut down for the rest of the season on April 24. He finished the year having played in 27 games, carried a 3.38 goals-against average (GAA) and a .893 SV% to go with it.

It’s safe to say his season was a roller coaster ride. While it was disappointing that Murray’s woes carried over into Ottawa, there were a few bright spots when he was in the crease. Some of their success this season was based solely on him being fantastic in the net. A handful of games saw him shut the door, make north of 30 saves and give them a chance to win. When he did return from the IR in March, he was a big part in helping the Senators finish strong down the stretch. The burning question remains, however. Can he do it next season and the season after that?

2021-22 & Beyond

The Senators aren’t the only team that relies on their starting goaltender to set them up for success year in and year out. As the old saying goes, “show me a good coach and I’ll show you a good goalie.” The goaltender props up the whole team and since he was a part of back-to-back Stanley Cups with the Penguins, the Sens are still hopeful that Murray can be the guy that brings them back into relevance and the playoffs.

Matt Murray Pittsburgh Penguins
Matt Murray as a Pittsburgh Penguin (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

A new season means a fresh start for Murray. As I alluded to previously, he did have some great games in the net when he returned from injury, so, hopefully, that carries over twofold. Being a No. 1 is nothing new for him, so I would like to believe that last season went the way it did for a multitude of reasons. Adjusting to a new city and team, a shortened schedule due to the pandemic, and just flat-out bad luck. It’s also worth noting that the Senators did make a goalie coaching change in April and Murray’s play dramatically increased.

You may also like:

The Senators have put themselves in a great spot for success. The team is young and full of talent, but they will only go as far as their goaltending takes them. Last season’s failures were in large part because of the lack of stability and consistency in the net, so this season is no different. Murray has to stay healthy and his game has to be where it was in April. The Sens do have great goaltending depth even with the loss of Joey Daccord to the Seattle Kraken, but none of them have the track record that Murray has.

The Senators aren’t steering away from their plan on keeping Murray as the starting netminder. He’s locked in until the 2024-25 season with an average annual value (AAV) of $6.25 million, which makes it a tough contract to trade. It’s also just one season, so it makes absolutely no sense to give up on him. The numbers he put up in April were great and he looked much like the goalie he was in Pittsburgh.

We won’t know what happens until October, but all signs are pointing to a rebound. If everything goes according to plan, he can man the crease for the next few seasons until one of Filip Gustavsson, Kevin Mandolese or Mads Sogaard turns into a bona fide starter.