Obviously a lot has been made about the Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender situation. The team has two No. 1 netminders, each of whom have won the Stanley Cup – one just turned 32, the other is a decade younger and is obviously the future of the franchise.
Then throw in the fact one will be unprotected in the expansion draft next summer, and it’s basically a sports journalist’s dream story. The drama literally won’t end.
But for the first time this week, the Penguins organization admitted to having a bit of a problem in net.
“Despite the fact I like having the two top goalies, it’s difficult when both goalies are used to playing the majority of the games,” Rutherford said according to TSN. “You get into weeks where they’re splitting and going every other game. That hasn’t worked, at this point, as well as I thought it would.”
No change is imminent, but this comment will certainly get the rumor mill going again.
Despite his numbers, Marc-Andre Fleury had a terrific start to the season. As he always has, he bailed the team out several times in October, so although the 0.909 save percentage and 3.09 GAA were ugly, Fleury was 6-2-1 in the first nine games.
But since rookie Matt Murray returned, he hasn’t won a game. Fleury went 0-3-2 in November and really only played well once (allowed one goal on 33 shots at Buffalo). In the last 30 days, he’s allowed more than three goals in five of his six appearances.
Now, there are a couple different theories for why that’s the case.
In November, Fleury faced an average of 34.5 shots on net per 60 minutes, which is a whole lot of shots. Only once did he see fewer than 30 shots on goals in any game he’s started last month. Fleury also received quite a bit of work in October, but last month, he didn’t appear to be quite as sharp.
But interestingly, during November, the Penguins allowed 28.8 shots on goal per 60 minutes when Murray was in net. That suggests Pittsburgh was more responsible in its own zone with the rookie.
For heaven’s sake, the Penguins yielded just 17 shots on goal against the Rangers, the top offensive team in the league last Wednesday (Murray was in goal). Two nights later, Pittsburgh allowed Minnesota, one of the more offensively challenged teams in the NHL, to pepper Fleury for 43 shots.
That just doesn’t add up. Perhaps the net troubles are as simple as this: on the nights Murray starts, the team is doing a much better job of insulating its zone. Fleury doesn’t get the same protection.
Although Pittsburgh’s inconsistencies on defense could be part of it, that isn’t the only problem. As previously mentioned, Fleury doesn’t look as sharp lately, so the bail out saves he was making in October allowing the Penguins to come back and win games, aren’t occurring as frequently.
There are two natural causes to this problem.
A) Fleury feels the pressure of having to compete for his job. For whatever reason, most Penguins fans want to believe this to be the case. There’s a false narrative in Pittsburgh that Fleury isn’t a mentally strong netminder.
That might have been true five years ago, but it really doesn’t seem to be anymore. For me, Fleury put that to rest when he had a stellar 2014-15 season and then kept the Penguins in a playoff series they had no business competing in – the first round versus the Presidents’ Trophy winning Rangers. New York won the series in five games, but every loss was decided by one goal, and Fleury stood on his head.
No, it’s more likely option B) Fleury has yet to adjust to the life as a backup goaltender.
Remember, Fleury was the first overall pick in the 2003 draft. With the exception of 2007-08 (because of injury) 2012-13 (the lockout) and last season (again, injury), Fleury has played at least 60 games every year since 2006-07. As a 21-year-old in 2005-06, he appeared in 50 games.
Playing every other night just simply isn’t something he’s used to. Like anything, it’s going to take time for him to adjust to this new role.
The question is: will Rutherford remain patient enough to let Fleury adjust?
Since returning from injury, Murray has remained sharp, going 7-2-0 with a 0.929 save percentage and 2.02 GAA in nine games despite sharing the net.
Pittsburgh went a measly 7-5-2 in November. And while it’s too early to hit the panic button, the Penguins want to snap out of their little funk. They haven’t won two in a row since Election Night, and a big reason why is the goaltender rotation.
Coach Mike Sullivan doesn’t have much of a choice at this point. Fleury is a great teammate and still a leader in the locker room, but it’s time to officially name Murray the No. 1 goaltender.
That doesn’t necessarily mean trade Fleury. Murray could still go through a slump himself, and if Fleury steps in to play well, he could be the team’s starter again.
But at this point, the Penguins need to pick one goaltender. Alternating between both netminders isn’t working.