By: Nick Lanciani
With Matt Murray’s impressive 2016 Stanley Cup Playoff run for the Pittsburgh Penguins, is it time for them to think about their future in goal and realize the future is now? Let’s decide whether or not it’s time for the Penguins to trade Marc-Andre Fleury.
Trade Him, Trade Him Now
Everyone’s making a big fuss over goaltenders these days, yet it seems like the smart thing to do would be to stick with your number one goalie all along. The St. Louis Blues fallout in Game 6 of the Western Conference Final against the now-headed to their first Stanley Cup Final in franchise history, San Jose Sharks, had nothing to do with shaky goaltending, despite being outscored by a large margin.
Brian Elliott was the Blues clear starting goalie in the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs as Jake Allen lost his way in the final month and a half of the regular season and was relegated to the backup role in the playoffs. Allen’s Game 5 loss to the Sharks comes as no surprise, given well, let’s just say Elliott is the clear number one goaltender as of right now for St. Louis’s 2016-2017 season opener (and I’m not just saying that because of a bet I made with Connor).
The Penguins rode the momentum of their tremendous run on the backs of Marc-Andre Fleury, Matt Murray and Jeff Zatkoff this season, but one thing has emerged as a clear choice to make. Is it time to replace Fleury?
Look, that might sound surprising— okay, I’m even surprising myself— but let’s face it, Fleury is coming off his greatest season ever and there’s no greater time to amass a significant return than right now. Especially when Matt Murray put up similar numbers in the regular season to the currently elite Washington Capitals goaltender, Braden Holtby’s rookie year.
Fleury went 35-17-6 is 58 games played this season with a 2.29 GAA and a .921 SV%. He recorded five shutouts this year, which put him at 20 shutouts over the last three seasons. Last year, Fleury went 34-20-9 in 64 appearances, with a league leading and career high 10 shutouts and a 2.32 GAA and .920 SV%. For the lack of a better summarization, Fleury’s been on fire in recent years.
His success seems to be unusual, considering how Fleury often flutters out of peak performance in the playoffs— oh wait.
Having been out of the lineup since March 31st with a concussion, Fleury returned to his first game action in relief of Murray in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Final against the Lightning on May 20th. Fleury made his first start in nearly two months on May 22nd in Game 5.
In two playoff appearances, Fleury is 0-1-1 with a 3.03 GAA and an .875 SV%. In other words, not good for his first couple of games back on the wings of a spectacular Vezina Trophy worthy season (it beats me why Jonathan Quick is a finalist this year and Fleury is not). A good playoff goalie is expected to make an impact on the series, bar none.
I get it, he’s coming back from being mostly inactive for the last couple of months, but he is considered a regular at what he does for a living and should not have even started Game 5, based on Murray’s performance in the playoffs as a whole. You don’t change your goalie in a series unless it’s goalie change in a relief appearance or heading into an elimination game— otherwise you’re only tinkering with momentum and robbing a goalie’s confidence (and perhaps the rest of the team’s confidence).
But Matt Murray is ten years younger and making an impact as good, if not better than Fleury, when it comes to crunch time in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
In Murray’s 13 regular season games this season, he went 9-2-1 with a 2.00 GAA and a .930 SV%. His rookie season save percentage almost mirror’s Holtby’s .934 SV% as a rookie 21-year-old back in the 2010-2011 season. Holtby also went 12-10-2 in 14 games with a 1.79 GAA, for the record, that year.
While Holtby set himself apart from the rest in 12 playoff appearances this year with a 1.72 GAA and .942 SV% at 26-years old, Murray’s been Holtby-esque spectacular, all while defeating the Capitals and taking his team further than Holtby’s ever been in the playoffs.
In 14 playoff appearances, Murray is 10-4-1 with a 2.30 GAA and a .924 SV% in his first run through the Stanley Cup Playoffs heading into Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final. Holtby went 7-7-4 in 14 games played with a .935 SV% and a 1.95 GAA in the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs (his first taste of playoff hockey). While the numbers might seem misleading, Holtby allowed 30 goals on 459 shots against that year and Murray’s allowed 32 goals on 420 shots against thus far in the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
For a 21— 22-year-old goaltender, this kind of a run is insanity, no matter how you look at it.
For a general manager, living in the Braden Holtby-as-top-dog-in-net era, it’s certainly worth considering moving Murray up not only from the third-string position, but to your number one spot for good.
I have nothing against Marc-Andre Fleury as he is now.
I’ll repeat that. I have nothing against Marc-Andre Fleury.
However, at $5.75 million with 4 years left on his contract and Murray only costing $620K with two years left and a plethora of other talented pending RFA’s in the next couple of seasons for the Penguins, it’s worth the time to see what other teams would give up for a surefire number one goalie for at least the next five years (if not longer- Fleury isn’t showing signs of turning into the next Ryan Miller anytime soon).
And given the relationship between the Penguins and the Toronto Maple Leafs after the Phil Kessel deal in the offseason, it might be worth investigating just how badly Toronto needs a goaltender. Let alone other teams scampering around the Maple Leafs in the standings.
One more tidbit of information; Fleury’s rookie campaign of the 2003-2004 season only saw a 4-win, 14 losses and 2 ties performances in 21 games played with a 3.64 GAA and a .896 SV% at the age of 18 going on 19.
The fact of the matter is that the Penguins could lengthen the life of their success with a young goalie like Murray putting on a performance similar to their rival in Washington’s goalie (Holtby) and still be built on the currently successful Chicago model of running a team.
A team built on interchangeable scoring, a shutdown defense and a goalie that is clutch when you need him to be, but can be bailed out as he grows with the team in front of him.
Trade Fleury while you can. Make a pure hockey move, reminiscent of the days when the Boston Bruins acquired prolific goal scorer Phil Esposito in a deal that worked out for everyone involved— Blackhawks included— or like when the Colorado Avalanche landed Patrick Roy from the Montréal Canadiens— except the Canadiens didn’t really get much out of that deal and it was kind of forced on them (or by themselves, depending of who you ask).
Bottom line, hockey is a business and in a business you’re always looking for the here and now and where you’re headed in the future. Otherwise you’re only doomed to mismanagement at its finest. Pittsburgh has a chance to avoid poor management by trading Fleury while the price is still high and avoid falling in the standings by the grace of the rest of their organization and Matt Murray in goal.