The Pittsburgh Penguins have been overly reliant on Marc-Andre Fleury in 2015-16. Only two teams in the NHL — the Philadelphia Flyers and Ottawa Senators — give up more shots on average, and Fleury has needed to be sharp in every one of his 25 games played. He’s been on the shelf since mid-December with a concussion though, and the Penguins have struggled in his absence.
Pittsburgh has played four contests without Fleury, taking three consecutive losses before beating the Columbus Blue Jackets on Dec. 21. After going to Jeff Zatkoff in the first two games, highly-touted prospect Matt Murray received the last two starts.
Based on what we’ve seen from him in the NHL so far, it should be his net until Fleury is able to return. He was originally given a one-to-two week timetable, but we all know how tricky concussions can be. Even if Fleury misses just another game or two, the Penguins should use this opportunity to see exactly where Murray is in his development.
— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) December 22, 2015
If Zatkoff gave the Penguins a better chance to win on any given night, then rolling him out consistently would make sense. They are sitting in sixth place in the Metropolitan Division, five points out of a Wild Card spot and eight points out of a divisional seed. They don’t have much wiggle room heading into the New Year, and the wins need to start coming in a hurry.
Murray is simply the best option the Penguins have available to them at the moment. He’s the best goaltending prospect in the organization and has been running roughshod over the AHL for one and a half seasons already. The former third-round draft pick compiled a ridiculous 25-10-3 record last year to go along with an even more ridiculous .941 save percentage. Murray was on a similar pace at the start of this season, going 12-4 with a save percentage of .938 before the recall earlier this month.
This is also the netminder who broke the AHL’s shutout streak record in 2014-15, going 304 minutes and 11 seconds without giving up a single goal. He stopped 130 consecutive shots and was later named the league’s top goalie on the year.
The Penguins know what Murray is capable of in the minors. At just 21 years of age, he has established himself as an elite goalie in the AHL, and he’s just going to get better over time. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette recently ranked Murray as the second-best prospect in the organization, and associate general manager Jason Botterill had glowing praise for the netminder:
“Matt just continues to amaze us with his development, his demeanor. He had that amazing season last year … and it’s just carried over to this year. He continues to work on his positioning. He’s so composed. But what gets me excited about him and his future is his ability to recover from adversity, whether it’s a tough loss or a bad goal that goes in.”
Fleury is still the man in Pittsburgh, and will likely be the team’s undisputed No. 1 goalie for another two or three seasons. His contract doesn’t expire until 2018-19, and there’s no reason to believe that Murray will be challenging for a starting job in the NHL over the next year or two.
He may be able to do so in other organizations, but Fleury has been excellent this year and hasn’t shown any signs of dropping off from a performance standpoint. That’s why this injury is one of those odd “blessings in disguise” for Pittsburgh. Zatkoff’s contract ends at the end of this season, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Penguins go to Murray as their No. 2 beginning next season. That would give him time to settle in behind Fleury, maybe starting 20 games before taking over a larger portion of the workload in 2017-18.
It’s unclear how much longer Fleury will be on the injured reserve, but Mike Sullivan shouldn’t be shy about playing Murray ahead of Zatkoff. At this juncture that actually seems like the safer play. He only gave up two goals against the Carolina Hurricanes in his first NHL start on December 19 and he looked even better against the Blue Jackets a few nights later.
The Penguins’ goalie of the future has a chance to show what he can do with Fleury out, and the team should be giving him every opportunity to do so.