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Penguins goalie situation coming to a head?

Penguins GM Jim Rutherford says he isn't feeling urgency to make any moves, but has acknowledged that carrying two "#1" goalies hasn't been as smooth as possible. For a team that could use upgrades elsewhere, should he consider making a major in-season trade?

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It might be a little early to use a term like "restless" but it does seem like Penguins GM Jim Rutherford isn't quite content with the Penguins team. Look at the quotes from Dave Molinari in the PG yesterday in an ominously named article: "Rutherford: Having two top goalies 'hasn't worked … as well as I thought'

"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," general manager Jim Rutherford said Monday. "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."

"That’s not to say there won’t be changes made at some point — all teams make a change or two at some point during the season — but I don’t feel any urgency as of right now to do that."

"Our defensive play has to be more consistent, get tightened up," he said. "We’re trying to do too many high-risk things, as far as on the offensive side of the puck."

Though Rutherford in that middle quote clearly says there's no urgency, the seeds for what he may have to do to improve the team have been planted. Depending on how the team plays going forward may indicate if he has to make a transaction for the best interest of having them click in the spring.

Pair this with rumblings that Marc-Andre Fleury telling the paywall site he's having a tough time getting used to a foreign role of a goalie rotation and this could mean the inevitable Fleury trade happens sooner than later.

Thinking about it from a pure clinical, non-emotional stance:

  • Cap considerations. The Penguins have no salary cap space right now, pushed beyond it actually due to long-term injury reserve. In order to make a trade to improve the team (no matter what the trade is), Pittsburgh will be forced to include salary going out the door. Fleury and his $5.75 million certainly fits the bill to give open up a lot of possibilities.
  • 2 starting goalies is a luxury. Luxuries are nice, and keeping Fleury would be insurance if Matt Murray gets injured again, like he has twice in calendar 2016 (concussion in April, broken thumb in September). Luxuries though, by definition, aren't necessary. Only one goalie can play at a time. Pittsburgh could really use an upgrade in skill in their top-6, or another top-4 defenseman to round out the team. The trade of a goalie could re-balance the team in that way and strengthen them.
  • Expansion draft looms. Next year Murray's contract kicks in, keeping both goalies is impractical next year even before the considerations of the expansion draft and Fleury's NMC that will require him to be protected. Realistically the end-game has always been a trade of Fleury before June 2017.
  • Performance. At some point if the sample size continues to enlarge, it really doesn't matter how or why the team seems to play better in front of Murray and allow fewer shots- the importance will be simply that they are playing better. Let's emphasize that Fleury hasn't personally had a bad season but his stat-line (6-5-3, 3.38 GAA, .901 save%) looks like he plays on a completely foreign team to Murray (7-1-0, 1.75, .938%). If the team is better with Murray and he is doing the job as well, let's not over-think it, better is better for the overall team.
  • Clarity. If the Pens players are having some issue with the difference in goalies (or not knowing which one is "the guy") and if each goalie is unsettled by not getting into the rhythm of being the full-time starter it seems to reason that "hitching the wagon" to one guy and going in a defined direction ought to bring a lot of clarity and settle the situation for all parties. Players are human, they know it's a tough circumstance for both goalies to be in. Rutherford taking a decisive action now would leave no doubt to the team's direction and resolve.

The question for Rutherford to weigh is when will that trade be best timed? He's got a little more time to see how both goalies (and the team in front of them) performs, to determine if a trade is necessary or most beneficial to be made right now. Perhaps the initial plan - to retain both as long as possible - still is the prudent one. That's a completely fair conclusion to come to as well, which I'm sure many Pens fans will be feeling as well.

Beyond that, there are a lot of unknowns and hypotheticals. Would Fleury be willing to not block a trade to a team on his 12-team no-trade list if it meant the role of a starter? Just what would the trade market be at this moment where some markets (namely CGY and DAL) have gotten good goaltending? There's so many variables that it's a major stretch at this point to plan out much more without knowing the information that a real NHL GM has.

However, barring the fear of an injury, there doesn't seem to be much reason in a league of capped salaries to spend a premium on a backup goalie. Backup goalies don't play at all in the playoffs and really don't need to play but 1 out of 4 or 5 games with the way Murray has played. Jim Rutherford knows this and now must consider what the best course of action is for the team. Coming into the season it surely looked like keeping both goalies throughout the year was a smart play. Now, with a quarter of data in, we'll see if he feels that has changed enough to merit a major shakeup for last year's champs.