It's no secret - with the Las Vegas franchise set to enter the league for the 2017-18 season, the Penguins face a difficult decision concerning their goaltenders. As the roster currently stands, Pittsburgh will need to protect Marc-Andre Fleury given his limited no-move clause, leaving Matt Murray free for Vegas to steal away from the Pens. It's not a foregone conclusion, as there are several options available to GM Jim Rutherford and plenty of time to explore them, but one thing he needs to be certain to do is secure Murray's place on this team for next season and into the future. Jon wrote yesterday about how keeping Fleury could be the better option. While he makes some valid points, it misses the big picture in what should be a fairly straight forward decision for the front office.
Marc-Andre Fleury has been an average to above average goaltender in recent years, but Pens fans have a tendency to overrate his production. As I wrote during last year's playoffs:
"And while Fleury's season on the whole was the best of his career, he certainly found more success under Mike Johnston's extreme defensive focus than he did under Mike Sullivan's system that opened things up offensively and in transition. In 24 starts under Johnston, Fleury had 0.927 SV% and 2.21 GAA. Under Sullivan, those numbers slipped to a 0.916 SV% and 2.34 GAA in 34 starts."
Johnston snuffed out all offense, for both teams on the ice, while coach of the Penguins, and the only player to benefit statistically on the team was the man between the pipes. It's no surprise that Fleury has posted some of the best numbers of his career in that situation. But breaking out the time under Johnston, and it becomes more questionable whether Fleury can or should be the guy the team should build around in net:
There's a noticeable bump in his production under Johnston from his stats under Bylsma and Sullivan. And while Mike Bales has worked with Fleury to improve his fundamentals, it's unclear how much (or little) of that can account for the difference instead of the change in system in front of him. While Matt Murray doesn't have any time under Johnston for comparison, he has come in and put up much better numbers than Fleury in his limited number of starts. Covering both the regular season and playoffs, Murray's played 34 NHL games with a 0.926 SV% and 2.05 GAA. Given the way he dominated the AHL, it's not surprising to see him have a high level of success.
And as Jon pointed out, Tristan Jarry has seen some good success to start off the preseason, and possibly the team will get a chance to see how that translates when two points are on the line as Murray will miss the start of the regular season with a broken hand. But Jarry appearing to be a legitimate NHL goaltender doesn't make a young, cost-controlled goalie posting great numbers expendable - it makes it that much easier to get rid of the older, more expensive, goalie with more marginal numbers and gamble on the smaller sample size of Murray being indicative of what he can provide to the Penguins.
Because at this point, the main benefit of sticking with Marc-Andre Fleury is knowing what to expect with him in net. But that's a double-edged sword as well. Fleury has hit his prime, and his career arc has already peaked. He's only paid an average salary for a goalie, but he's not greatly outperforming that cap hit either. And while Matt Murray would likely bring back a better return in a trade, Fleury's cap hit would still be on the books and would make adding any cap hit the incoming talent would have more difficult to manage. At 22, Murray still has years to go to hit his prime, and if he develops into a Vezina caliber goalie the Pens would be an extremely difficult team to beat.
To be frank, the Penguins are in a position where trading Fleury for future considerations and a relief in cap space today would be a huge win for the team. With the young players that made an impact during last year's Stanley Cup run, and players like Jake Guentzel, Daniel Sprong, Oskar Sundqvist, and Carter Rowney looking poised to make an impact at the NHL level, reinforcing the roster is something that can be done organically from within. Fleury might be signed through 2018-19, but Matt Murray won't even be eligible for unrestricted free agency until the 2022 offseason at the earliest. There's already precedent for goalies signing bridge contracts coming off their entry level deal, which Murray will be eligible for this coming offseason. Carey Price signed a 2 year, $2.75 million AAV bridge deal coming off his ELC. Braden Holtby signed for 2 years, $1.85 million AAV. Corey Crawford signed for a 3 year, $2.67 million AAV contract before establishing himself in net for the Blackhawks. Pittsburgh can keep Murray for well below the average going rate for a starting goaltender with a ceiling much higher than what Fleury can provide.
No matter the different options and scenarios for the goaltending situation to play out, Jim Rutherford needs to realize that by far his main objective needs to be ensuring that Matt Murray is a Pittsburgh Penguin next year. All other concerns pale in comparison. Murray is younger, has flashed a higher level of play, offers the team more contractual control and at a cheaper price than Marc-Andre Fleury. The youth movement certainly served the team well last season, and Rutherford needs to keep it going.
BOLD PREDICTION: Marc-Andre Fleury is a Nashville Predator by the trade deadline.