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Pittsburgh’s Crease Catastrophe: A Primer

Why the Penguins have fallen apart in net this year, goaltender by goaltender

NHL: Pittsburgh Penguins at Minnesota Wild Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

One month into the 2017-18 NHL season, and plenty of storylines in net have made headlines.

Carey Price has been godawful, finally seeing the disaster he’s playing behind catch up to him statistically. Henrik Lundqvist has been dealing with something similar, while both the Arizona Coyotes and the Vegas Golden Knights are about to hit six goaltenders dressed apiece on the year before October is even finished.

It would be nice if Pittsburgh had an eye-catching goaltender storyline this year, of course, if theirs was one of the happy ones. Nothing would be cooler than Matt Murray taking over as the starter to a dominant opening stretch, while Antti Niemi stood as the revived backup boasting numbers he hadn’t seen in four years.

Instead, the Penguins are dealing with Montreal’s problem, plus Arizona’s problem, all rolled into one ugly package.

The Starter: Matt Murray’s Woes

NHL: Stanley Cup Final-Pittsburgh Penguins at Nashville Predators Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Matt Murray finished his 2016-17 campaign on top of the world.

At just 23-years old, the 6-foot-4 netminder had just won his second consecutive Stanley Cup, becoming just the third goaltender over 6-foot-2 to win it all in the history of the NHL (after only Ken Dryden and Tom Barrasso).

He had managed to firmly steal the starting gig from veteran fan favorite Marc-Andre Fleury, who was left exposed for the Golden Knights to claim in June, and he was coming off a year that saw him put up a .923 save percentage in 49 games.

A lot can change in four months.

Through his first 11 outings on the year, Murray has put up just a .903 save percentage, getting chased in his most recent outing and allowing 31 goals through the first month of play.

It’s worth pointing out that Murray already has five Quality Starts on the year, and just one Really Bad Start using Rob Vollman’s metric (although his two abysmal partial games don’t count, which would tip the needle up to three).

It’s also worth noting that when the defense lets him down, it REALLY lets him down.

But the games that he’s not performing optimally in, to be frank, he’s just not making the stops he should. Take a look at the game he was chased in recently:

On one hand, there’s an awful screen by his own teammate.

On the other hand, attempting to get a visual on the puck by going to your outside angle when the puck is headed to center ice, and leaving the net wide-open, creates one of two scenarios: either the defender will have to bail you out (not likely in this situation), or you’ll have to make a save based on desperation and luck rather than on solid technique.

Similarly, here’s the second goal he allowed:

Did his defense get walked? No question. That becomes a suboptimal situation the minute the play crosses center ice.

But watch how Murray plays the shot; notice that, rather than sealing the ice, he goes flat as he attempts to slide his left leg back to both seal the ice and protect the post.

It doesn’t work, which isn’t altogether surprising.

I’m never a big fan of these desperation-style saves in a situation that could be dealt with using a clear stop in butterfly or post lean; not only does Murray risk leaving holes in the ice (as is evidenced by the goal scored here), but he risks allowing a rebound goal if he does manage to block it with his pad.

He’s prone on the ice; even if he does make that first stop, he’d be lucky to make a second. If he’d played even a foot farther back on this approach, the sprawl wouldn’t be necessary.

His third goal against? Poor defensive coverage (and a piss-poor effort at clearing the zone on multiple attempts), but weak depth decisions from Murray himself on a play inside the point. His lateral seal almost perfectly traces along the edge of the blue paint; as tall as he is, there’s little excuse for leaving that kind of back-door opening.

Breaking down Murray’s game goal by goal would take forever, because he’s not exhibiting the kind of ‘poor’ start that needs just one fix to rectify.

His decision-making in general is the problem; from his depth to his execution setting for goals, there’s a lot left to be desired.

The real problem, of course, is that Murray still look a lot like the goaltender who put up two great seasons to kick off his career in Pittsburgh. These saves aren’t out of the ordinary for the young netminder - he just isn’t executing them as well as he did last year.

He could just be mentally off his game, or he could be suffering from winner’s fatigue after a long (two) postseasons. He could also be regressing to the statistical mean as a goaltender with an inconsistent style of play.

He’s doing well when he does win, but he’s showing glaring holes when he doesn’t - and that, for a team without much depth, is a huge problem.

Which brings us down the depth chart. Buckle up; things are about to get really ugly.

The [Former] Backup: Antti Niemi’s Career Arc Comes to an End

NHL: Pittsburgh Penguins at Tampa Bay Lightning Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

It’s hard to know exactly what Jim Rutherford thought he was getting in Antti Niemi this summer.

His first warning sign should have been that Niemi, who has a Stanley Cup (where Kari Lehtonen does not), was bought out by the Dallas Stars this summer after two abysmal outings.

His second warning should have been that a Stanley Cup-winning goaltender, who had been a starter just two years ago before struggling with Dallas, was willing to sign for just barely over league minimum on a free agent deal.

It’s possible that Rutherford didn’t anticipate Murray needing more than 10 games off, give or take, and figured that even a declining Niemi would be excellent as a cheap backup with great locker room presence. He’s a wonderful mentor off the ice and a well-liked figure around the league, so Rutherford could have hoped for that outcome.

The team has needed Niemi on multiple occasions so far, though, and have instead watched him falter on every start made.

When he was waived by Pittsburgh, the veteran had posted an atrocious .797 save percentage through three appearances, allowing 16 goals on 79 shots. He boasts a 7.50 Goals Against Average, and didn’t record a quality start even once.

What are his problems? Well.

Stylistically, Niemi is all over the place.

Shockingly, he does a better job of tracking, at times, than Murray himself - but the positioning he deploys negates any benefit he gives himself. He’s overly active with his pushes, straying outside the blue paint and overcommitting on angles to look like he’s got little direction. He makes extra work for himself, and the defense in front of him - which looks weak no matter who they play in front of - doesn’t compensate enough to give him any kind of good statistics.

Niemi is now down in Southern Florida with the Panthers, where his numbers have increased just a hair into ‘poor backup’ territory instead of ‘career is over’ territory.

Take a look at this goal before we move away from him, though:

Notice how Niemi follows the puck out off his pad with his head, knowing exactly where it’s headed - something missing from a handful of goaltenders, even at the NHL level.

He counter-rotates away from the rebound, though, pulling his left leg in before he even starts to head in the other direction - leaving his crease, essentially, wide open for an easy rebound goal.

That’s exactly what Rutherford was getting when he signed Niemi as his backup, and it’s foolish to think the team would get anything different.

Which, of course, leads us further down the chart - to an eerily barren minor league depth, particularly given the team’s current situation.

The First Prospect: Casey DeSmith

NHL: Winnipeg Jets at Pittsburgh Penguins Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Most of the hockey world reacted in pretty much the same way when Casey DeSmith made his NHL debut in relief of Murray against the Winnipeg Jets:

A select few, of course, had followed his career back during his college days, when he lost a full season of eligibility due to a domestic violence incident with his then-girlfriend while at school.

The University of New Hampshire and the NCAA refused to grant DeSmith his final year of eligibility, so the undrafted Rochester, NH native went pro one full year later with the ECHL’s Wheeling Nailers.

Putting aside his problematic past, DeSmith’s first two professional seasons were statistically strong, although he was trapped in the depth chart his first year behind both Murray and Tristan Jarry.

I’m not going to cheer the fact that he managed to overcome his own VERY self-made adversity to put up good numbers in the pros after a full year off from high-level hockey. It’s a clear fact that DeSmith is a player who has statistically proven to be promising on the ice, and much harder to root for off of it.

DeSmith allowed a goal on his first NHL shot ever faced, then allowed two more on the subsequent 14 shots he saw before the game ended. He looked much better, positionally, than Murray (and much calmer than Niemi ever had), but lacked NHL timing and was a bit slow on the read when faced with a rolling Winnipeg offense.

With that, he’s back down in the AHL, and Pittsburgh is on to the next one.

The Other Prospect: Tristan Jarry

NHL: Preseason-Pittsburgh Penguins at Detroit Red Wings Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

I’m nervous about Jarry up at the NHL level.

The 22-year-old former Edmonton Oil Kings backstop has a sub-.900 save percentage through his first five games this year, and allowed three goals on 25 shots in his NHL debut last spring.

The Penguins don’t have much choice, though. If he doesn’t work out, they can:

  1. recall Sean Maguire from the ECHL’s Wheeling Nailers, where he’s sitting on a sub-.900 save percentage for a second consecutive season,
  2. [potentially] bring Filip Gustavsson over from his SHL loan, ruining what’s looking like a very good development year in Europe, or
  3. trade for someone else and hope that they find another Scott Wedgewood at a Scott Wedgewood-esque price.

In the past, Jarry has looked like a conservatively-positioned netminder with good read ability and simplistic save execution, but his numbers to start off the year are concerning. It’s possible those could improve in the NHL, but not altogether likely - and Pittsburgh shouldn’t want to stunt the development of a young netminder they hope to see in the NHL long-term down the road.

What The Penguins Could Have Done Better

In a perfect world, Jim Rutherford wouldn’t have signed Antti Niemi to serve as the team’s number two.

Assuming they wanted his veteran voice, though, Pittsburgh’s biggest area of neglect was in failing to adequately stock the crease after him.

One of the best-equipped teams in net this year is the Chicago Blackhawks. Although it’s grossly unfair that the cap-strapped team still has room to boast such solid depth, they’ve managed to pull it off quite well; behind an uproven Anton Forsberg (their version of a cheap Antti Niemi), the team has all the goaltenders needed in any checklist. They have an NHL-calibre prospect with games played in J-F Berube, a veteran voice in Jeff Glass, and two eager young prospects in Collin Delia and Matt Tomkins.

The Toronto Maple Leafs are similarly stacked. Behind the regressing Curtis McElhinney, there’s Garret Sparks, Calvin Pickard, and Kasimir Kaskisuo. The Vancouver Canucks have veteran Richard Bachman alongside prospect Thatcher Demko if needed, and the Anaheim Ducks have both Ryan Miller and Reto Berra if something were to happen to John Gibson.

Pittsburgh, though, went with the bare minimum, and did so behind a goaltender who sat below replacement level for both seasons prior to signing. That’s irresponsible.

How Things Could Play Out

Ideally, Murray starts to put his game back together.

Stylistically, he has flaws in the areas mentioned above; his save selections err on the melodramatic (and therefore limiting on second and third shots) side, his depth is suboptimal, and he sometimes reads like he’s still adjusting to the NHL game.

Two huge NHL names, though, also boast significant flaws in their games - and they both overcome them well enough. Jonathan Quick, despite overcommitting on shots and playing out on sharp-angle shots, has a Conn Smythe and two Vezina nominations. Ben Bishop, despite inopportune challenges and poor angles, has two Vezina nominations of his own and put up a .921 save percentage over a whopping five years in Tampa Bay.

In a perfect world, Murray’s year plays out like he’s Ben Bishop. He, like last season, makes the saves he could have made with less movement - and makes them often enough to steal his team some games, even with the disaster on defense in front of him.

If he can’t, though, here’s hoping that Jarry straightens things out in his own game soon. Pittsburgh hasn’t fallen too far from their blowout losses yet, but they’re just tempting fate at this point.