The Ottawa Senators are fast approaching a difficult goalie situation. Filip Gustavsson is improving and showcasing his ability to be a legitimate starter in the NHL. Anton Forsberg is fast becoming a fan favourite and has shown flashes of being a reliable backup. Matt Murray is the highest paid of the bunch and has been regressing while battling injuries. The team needs to come up with a plan on what to do with Murray.
Murray was nothing short of brilliant en route to the Pittsburgh Penguins’ back-to-back Stanley Cup wins. He posted a .937 save percentage (SV%) in 11 games during their first run in 2016 and followed that up with a .908 SV% in 2017. He had ups and downs following these runs but began battling injuries, forcing the Penguins to rely on other goaltenders before finally moving him in 2020.
Once traded to the Senators, Murray signed a four-year, $25 million contract with a $6.25 million average annual value. General manager Pierre Dorion was betting on Murray’s past performance and hoping that the injuries wouldn’t slow him down. Since joining the team, Murray has had his worst seasons since joining the league. With both the 2020-21 season and 2021-22 season being his worst years for save percentage (.893 and .906) and goals against (3.38 and 3.05, respectively). Dorion and the Senators need to address the situation in net and there are really only three options.
Trading Away Matt Murray
The most obvious answer is also one of the most difficult. Murray holds a modified no-trade clause on his contract for the remaining years, meaning he will need to greenlight any possible trade destination. Further compounding the difficulty is the significant salary cap hit for an underperforming and often unavailable goalie. Any trade that involves Murray is unlikely to result in making the Senators better (other than their cap situation) and it’s likely that they will have to retain salary to make it work.
Given the modified no-trade clause, it’s not impossible to send Murray to a team looking to hold cap in exchange for prospects or roster players. Teams like the Arizona Coyotes would be an ideal trade destination, but it’s unlikely that Murray would approve the move. He would most likely only agree to head to a contender. With competitive teams being so close to the cap, it would almost certainly have to be a salary retention deal.
Buying Out Matt Murray
Another option would be for the Senators to buy out his contract. The issue with this method is that it kicks the can further down the road. Murray would still carry a cap hit, albeit a lower one than his current contract. As Murray is over 26 years old, under the current collective bargaining agreement (CBA) the buyout cost is two-thirds of his remaining salary. With $15 million owed, the buyout cost is $10 million. The CBA rules stipulate that this amount goes against the cap, spread out over twice the remaining contract length. In Murray’s case, that means a cap hit of $2.5 million over the next four years.
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While the immediate reduction in the cap hit would be beneficial, the issue comes in years three and four. These should be the prime seasons where the Senators are at their most competitive. As everyone has seen with teams like the Tampa Bay Lightning or Vegas Golden Knights, you have to straddle the line of the salary cap to have the required depth to compete. While the buyout hit isn’t as bad as what the Minnesota Wild are dealing with, any hits to the cap that aren’t for rostering a player are tough to stomach.
Let Matt Murray Play
In a perfect world, Murray would be recovering and training this offseason, ready to go for opening night. His goaltending stats prior to the trade were worthy of being a top starter in the league, but injury is a fickle fiend. Keeping him on the roster means the team has to play him. They cannot keep paying him his salary without getting the on-ice performance. It wouldn’t be the worst thing to run a tandem of Murray and Gustavsson for a 50/50 split of games, but that’s predicated on Murray remaining healthy.
The difficulty with allowing Murray to play is that a lot of his injury has been concussion-related. Another good knock or two could spell the end of his playing career. The Senators can’t make the mistake of allowing their prospective goalies to languish without solid development if Murray plays. If the team keeps focusing on him, they could be in a bad situation with under-developed goalies at a critical time if Murray goes down again.
Signing Murray was never supposed to be a gamble this big. A quality keeper to help secure the crease while the core of your team develops was a great idea. Unfortunately, such is the way of a contact sport played at this pace. As the Senators continue full speed into their roster building, the Murray situation carries a heavyweight to it.