This is the second part of a three-part series on how the Pittsburgh Penguins can address roster inadequacies internally.
Last week, we looked at what forwards the Penguins had in their system for options to bring up to the big club next year. This week we ?re going to look at a position where the Penguins have a lot more depth than most people realize — in goal.
Following the 2012 playoffs mess and underlined by the 2013 playoffs roller coaster, General Manager Ray Shero decided he needed more goaltenders in his system. Marc-Andre Fleury wasn ?t looking good, Tomas Vokoun was but he was old and that just wasn ?t good enough. So in the spring of 2013, from April to the draft he added three goaltenders to bolster his depth in net.
Fleury turned his play around, with help from new goaltending coach Mike Bales, and has cemented his spot as one of the Penguin franchise’s centerpieces. However, who will back him up next year is one of the bigger questions facing the team this offseason. With Thomas Greiss on his way out, it’s time for the Pittsburgh Penguins to improve from within in net.
There is only one spot for goaltending available so we will break this down into the frontrunner and a secondary (but equally strong) choice.
Matt Murray was not a name many outside of reporters who cover the Penguins, diehard fans, and fans of his junior team really knew before the 2014-2015 season. Now, he ?s one of the most decorated prospects in the Penguins organization and is challenging guys like Kasperi Kapanen to be the team ?s top rated prospect.
The young netminder turned in slightly above average numbers in his junior career for the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds before the Penguins selected him in the third round, 83rd overall, during the 2013 draft. Considered a safe, if not confounding choice, since the Penguins had taken a goaltender in the second round that year as well, at the time he was looked at as an investment. Well the investment is already starting to pay off and the Penguins would do well to try him at the NHL level next season.
At 6 ?4 ? he is the same size as goalie Marc-Andre Fleury and boasts the same brand of athleticism that is a hallmark of the Penguins’ starter. He finished his junior career before moving into the fold with the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins and promptly rewriting the AHL goaltending and rookie record books.
In his first full pro season, he posted 12 shutouts, 1.58 GAA, and a .941 SV%. He was named the AHL ?s Goalie of the Year, their Rookie of the Year, named to both the first All Star team and the All Rookie team. At one point he was literally leaving records at his feet when he went nearly a month ?s worth of games without letting his opponents score a goal. He broke the previous AHL shutout streak record by nearly an entire game ?s worth of time when he played 304:11 minutes of shutout hockey.
He ?s big, he ?s athletic, he ?s young and he ?s cheap — all things the Penguins could benefit from as they prepare for the 2015-2016 season. Murray also seemed to learn and mature playing alongside the more veteran Jeff Zatkoff in Wilkes-Barre and undoubtedly would benefit from backing up the experienced Fleury in Pittsburgh.
The team will have to test Murray in the pre-season. Specifically with a game including more NHL than AHL-level players. They need to make sure he can make the leap. While his play seems to say he can, there have been hundreds of goalies who play stellar hockey in the AHL but just can ?t find their way in the NHL. Then they have to determine whether the lack of starts could stunt his development. Could he handle going from 40 starts to 20? That is the ultimate question, because the Penguins certainly do not want to risk Murray’s future for one season of a back-up.
The Next One
There is a second option and he’s already been an NHL back-up, so he’s proven he can handle the time off between starts. JEFF ZATKOFF spent the 2013-2014 season backing-up Marc-Andre Fleury after Tomas Vokoun went down with blood clots. The 27-year old played in 21 games for the Penguins that season and posted a 12-6-2-1 record while Thomas Greiss, who also appeared in 20 games in the 2014-2015 season, recorded 9-6-2-1. Zatkoff’s SV% in the NHL (in a season where the Penguins played less defensively minded hockey) was also better than Greiss’s with a .912% versus a .908%.
Most notable was his performance in a come from behind shoot-out victory against the Maple Leafs in the winter of 2013. He stopped 11 of 13 shots, shutting the door while the offense mounted their comeback for the win. Zatkoff also played in Wilkes-Barre last season, with Murray, and the two brought home the Harry “Hap” Holmes Memorial Award which is given each year to the goalie tandem with the lowest goals against number in the AHL.
The bottom line is, the Penguins have internal options and that is who they need to turn to as Fleury ?s back-up next year. They simply don ?t have the money to throw at another netminder who may or may not end up being worth it. Murray, having had the year he did in 2014-2015, deserves first crack at the line-up plain and simple, but Zatkoff has proven he would be an effective back-up in a pinch.