It's generally assumed by everyone who knows anything about hockey that the Pittsburgh Penguins will be trading Marc-Andre Fleury instead of protecting him and losing goaltender Matt Murray to the expansion draft. And while I agree that losing Matt Murray for nothing would be terrible, I also feel that, if I were GM Jim Rutherford, I'd trade Matt Murray over trading Marc-Andre Fleury.
Now as anyone who's followed me on Twitter for longer than about twenty-four hours can tell you, I'm a huge Marc-Andre Fleury fan, and I fully admit that's clouding my judgment a bit, but I also don't think I'm wrong. (My barometer for this is I ran it past my dad, who loves sports but doesn't care about hockey, and he didn't think I was entirely irrational.)
So here's my logic - Fleury and Murray are about equally skilled goaltenders. Fleury's upside is that he's experienced, technically solid, he's pulled an under-performing team to the playoffs by sheer power of will multiple times (including last year, before James Neal concussed him, one of many reasons James Neal is dead to me forever), and frankly he's underrated by most people in the NHL. His downsides are that he has occasional flights of fancy out of his crease (which are sometimes amazing), he can have confidence issues, so when he has a bad night he has a really bad night, and he's aging.
I once described Matt Murray's goaltending like this:
Matt Murray plays goal with the same type of confidence that allows guys his age to think they can live entirely on Cup o' Noodle.— Julia (@JuliaHass) December 15, 2016
Which sadly is pretty accurate.
Matt Murray is good. He's got the limbs of a Stretch Armstrong figurine, he's young, he's confident. But he's often too confident. The next time Matt Murray plays, watch his positioning - he's not square to the puck as often as I would think an NHL starting goalie should be. A lot of goals that Murray allows are because he's out of position when a more experienced goaltender wouldn't be. Right now, Murray makes up for it by using those Stretch Armstrong limbs and youthful speed to bail himself out, and that looks very impressive, but a bad habit's still a bad habit. He's not going to be that fast forever. And it's likely that with time he'll fix his sloppiness, but that's, unfortunately, too long-term a thing to know before the expansion draft hits.
In terms of stats, Fleury's look worse than Murray's on the outset - three more losses, worse GAA, worse SV% - until you do the math and realize that Fleury is, on average, facing four more shots every game he plays (30.6 versus 26.6),which means that Fleury is receiving the dubious honor of getting the net the nights the Pens defense decides to shit the bed more than he's actually a worse a goaltender than Murray.
Even if everyone agrees Fleury and Murray are equally good players, it's a no-brainer to trade the older, more expensive goalie for the equally skilled, younger, less expensive one, which I'm guessing is why everyone thinks that trading Fleury is a the obvious answer. And I would agree if that were the only thing to consider, they're right, but it's not. There's also long-term strategy.
Matt Murray was not intended to be Fleury's eventual successor - that role was supposed to go to Tristan Jarry who, I should say, is having a hell of a season down in Wilkes-Barre. Murray was found gold, more of an insurance policy in case Jarry didn't work out. And neither Jarry or Murray were supposed to be getting serious time replacing Fleury for another season or two. Neither would have, if Fleury hadn't gotten concussed. Trading Murray would still keep the Fleury-Jarry plan intact, and frankly, the Penguins would get a lot more in return for Murray (who after a Cup win has inflated value) than they would trading Fleury (who has a reputation as a poor goaltender and choker that isn't actually statistically accurate).
There's also the matter of the cap. Fleury has a relatively short contract that's about right given what goalies make across the league and his stats. He's not expensive, but he's not cheap. And after his contract expires, it's very unlikely that, if he's still with Pittsburgh, he'll sign anywhere else. Heck, he's been playing for the Penguins even longer than Sidney Crosby has (weird, right?). He might even take a discount.
Speaking of Sidney Crosby, the Pens don't have a ton of wiggle room with their cap, between him, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, and Phil Kessel, all of whom will still be on the books in 2021 when Murray's contract is up . Also on the books will potentially be the young talent that won the Penguins their Cup - Conor Sheary, Bryan Rust, Scott Wilson, Brian Dumoulin - that are making peanuts now, but who this summer are all due for significant raises. There's a real risk that even though Murray will be an RFA, he won't sign with the Penguins because they simply won't have the space to pay him what he deserves, especially compared to what he could make on the open market. Will Murray take a hometown discount to stay in Pittsburgh? Who knows, honestly. It depends on too many variables: how competitive the Penguins still are, if they've won any Cups since, how good or bad the goalie market is four years from now. But it's a very real possibility that the Penguins in 2021 could wind up in a situation where they have either an aging or retired core and neither Murray or Fleury and an unprepared Jarry who's never been in the starter position, which I think everyone would agree is a bad situation to be in. (Or it might not be and Jarry might surprise us. Who knows? I also worried at the start of the season that Malkin might finally be starting to feel his age and injuries and slow down this season, so clearly no one should trust my psychic powers for recognizing when things happen, only for figuring out that they will happen.)
My other concern as a GM trading Fleury would be, I admit it, entirely irrational and squishy and a reason I would never admit to publicly - intangibles. I know. I'm normally against using intangibles for personnel management, at least as they're usually used in hockey culture. Things like "grit" and "heart" are dumb. But things like "interpersonal relationships" and "locker room atmosphere" are, while not things that would cause me to either make a trade or not make a trade, a cherry on top of a previously made decision sundae.
The inescapable fact of the matter is that everyone who meets Marc-Andre Fleury loves Marc-Andre Fleury. I have never heard a single bad word said against him as a human being, even in the darkest, most awful message board corners of the internet. He's been in Pittsburgh for twelve years now and the city adores him, as if the constant chanting and screaming whenever he makes a routine save wasn't enough of a clue. I've visited Pittsburgh twice since becoming a hockey fan, and whenever I'm in the city wearing a Pens shirt, the person who people bring up most with me is Fleury. I don't even have to be wearing a Fleury shirt, and complete strangers will spontaneously go "how about Marc-Andre Fleury, huh? What a great guy". The locker room is similarly enamored with Fleury. Kris Letang, in particular, has been less than subtle when talking to the press about his displeasure with Fleury being traded. And personally, considering how important Kris Letang's well-being, both mental and physical, is to the defense of the Penguins, I wouldn't relish in the idea of upsetting him. I certainly wouldn't relish taking away someone who season after season after season wins what is essentially the team-voted Miss Congeniality award. This isn't to say Matt Murray isn't also a good guy, because he seems like a great guy. But Marc-Andre Fleury is a rare combination of skill and personality that's damn near irreplaceable, and it'd be naive to say that him leaving wouldn't cause some level of discontent in the locker room.
At the end of the day, though, I'm not Jim Rutherford. I'm involved in hockey in any way besides as a dedicated observer. I'm just a girl, standing in front of the internet, asking that the Penguins seriously reconsider trading Marc-Andre Fleury.