Hands down the biggest headline heading into the season for the Pittsburgh Penguins was how they were going to operate their goaltending tandem, both in the short term and long.
For over a decade, Marc-Andre Fleury has operated as the unquestioned number one netminder for the Penguins, leading the team to a back-to-back Stanley Cup Final appearances – winning one – breaking all sorts of franchise records along the way.
Last year, however, young Matt Murray came in when Fleury went down with an injury and never relinquish the net, helping the Penguins win yet another Stanley Cup.
So with two number one goalies, what would Pittsburgh do? Do you trade Fleury? Keep both and run a rotation? General Manager Jim Rutherford opted for the latter, and while Murray has picked up where he left off last year, Fleury has struggled mightily, unable to get use to splitting time after years of being the go-to guy.
Coming off winning the Stanley Cup, as well as returning every player except one (Ben Lovejoy), the Penguins saw an opportunity to repeat and decided to roll with both Fleury and Murray. They wanted to remain prepared if one should go down with an injury (which if you remember, Murray did miss the first part of the season after breaking his hand in the World Cup of Hockey).
But after seeing Fleury’s struggles this year, and what occurred in the same game, to two different goalies, on two different teams, it makes me reevaluate even further what the Penguins have going on.
On the same night, in the same game, both the starting goalies for the Tampa Bay Lightning and Detroit Red Wings were injured and are now going to miss an extended amount of time. Both teams were in a similar situation as the Penguins, having two goaltenders capable of starting.
Last year’s Eastern Conference Finals was a matchup of Murray and Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, a young up-and-comer in Tampa’s system. With Ben Bishop having only one year left on his contract, it was seen as a matter of time before Vasilevskiy took over on a full-time basis.
After entertaining a trade possibility involving Bishop in the offseason, Tampa Bay opted to enter the season using the same rotation that the Penguins are using. Now with Bishop out an expected 3-4 weeks, it will be Vasilevskiy taking charge in the net.
Jimmy Howard helped the Red Wings through some playoff runs, but last year lost his job to Petr Mrazek. Unable to move his contract, they kept Howard on to be the backup. However, he has enjoyed a bounceback season and is now stealing time away from Mrazek.
After injuring his knee, Howard is expected to be ‘out for a while’, with the team calling up Jared Coreau to take his place.
So how does this impact Fleury and the Penguins?
In a perfect world, the Penguins swap Fleury, get some cap relief and any stress left about a pending expansion draft drifts away.
But what the Penguins are risking every day that something doesn’t happen can’t be ignored at this point. Fleury’s value at this point probably is at an all time low. Obviously, if you are Pittsburgh you are selling the fact that if Fleury is put back in a situation where he could be ‘the guy’, he will rebound.
You are also risking him getting hurt each time you put him out there, which would make trading him impossible.
At this point in the season, there is absolutely no way that you could improve Fleury’s value without getting him into more games. But that would mean sitting Murray, and we have seen the proof in the team’s play when he is out of the lineup.
It seemed that the Penguins’ management were finally coming around to the idea that the rotation they were going to roll with at the start of the season, isn’t going to work out. With teams under a roster freeze, nothing can happen until the Tuesday after Christmas.
But they could also use this time to really look at their options, and before anything damaging long-term can happen, finally make the move that should have made a long time ago.