It would be an understatement to say that the start of Matt Murray’s season has not gone as anyone in Pittsburgh — and especially Matt Murray himself — wanted it go. After giving up 11 goals (with little help from the team around him) in his first two games, it was revealed on Tuesday that he is again going to be sidelined with a concussion.
There are a lot of concerns here.
Most important, is concern for Murray himself. He is still only 24 years old, has only played in 157 games (regular season and playoffs) and has already been officially diagnosed with three concussions (that we know of) in his career. That is a lot. That is a shockingly large number for someone with so little NHL experience, and that’s not good. I know fans get frustrated with the little nagging injuries he has dealt with throughout his career, but they haven’t always resulted in a lot of missed time on the ice. You can come back (relatively quickly) from the lower body injury, or the broken finger, or the pulled muscle. Concussions are a different beast, and when a player this young starts to have them pile up with this frequency you can’t help be worried about their long-term health and their ability to continue playing.
That should always be the biggest concern in these situations.
Looking back at his previous concussions, he missed two games during the 2015-16 postseason after suffering his first concussion in the regular season finale against the Philadelphia Flyers, and then missed nine games a season ago with his second concussion. The timetable for this latest one is still, obviously, unknown.
Which leads to the other set of concerns: Just how well equipped are the Penguins to deal with a potential long-term absence from their starting goalie, and is there any other action they should take?
At the start of the season I had Murray at No. 1 on the list of players that could make-or-break their season. Most of that assessment came down to his play, and the fact that we still don’t really know what direction his career is going to go in. He regressed during the 2017-18 season from where he was during his first two years in the league, and he was not anywhere near as sharp in his playoff performance as he was during the two Stanley Cup runs that preceded it.
Him not bouncing back would have been (and still would be) a problem.
The other potential problem regarding his performance was injury. Now it has become a reality.
That leaves the Penguins currently in a position where they are turning to Casey DeSmith and Tristan Jarry to carry the position. While DeSmith is coming into this season with far more confidence than he had a year ago, they are still two relatively unproven netminders that, between them, have appeared in just 41 NHL games.
Playing behind this team, and this defense, and the way it plays defensive is a big ask for a young goalie. Both have flashed the ability to play in the NHL, and both were able to hold their own last season in their limited playing time.
But as the backups they were also probably getting some more, let’s say favorable matchups. DeSmith, for example, only mad six starts against teams that made the playoffs all of last season, with three of those starts coming against Los Angeles and New Jersey, probably the two weakest offenses of any teams that made the playoffs. Granted, he can’t choose he plays against and can only be asked to stop the shots against the teams he is in against (and for the most part, he did do that), but it still creates a question as to what he can do with semi-regular playing time against the best teams.
The same is somewhat true for Jarry.
Overall, there were three different stretches last season where, for one reason or another, Murray was away from the team or out of the lineup for six or more games in a row and the play of his replacements was the mixed bag you might expect from two young goalies. They had stretches where they were really good (like Jarry’s six-game run in early December where he had a .927 save percentage against some bottom tier teams, as well as a four-game run from DeSmith in January where he was over .940). They also had some stretches where they struggled mightily and both had their share of short nights in the crease.
Now you’re asking them to step in behind a team that, to say the least, has not quite found its stride yet in the defensive zone. They are going to get tested.
If there is some good news here it is that the schedule is fairly light over the next few weeks.
They do not have a single back-to-back situation the rest of this month (they do not have one until the end of November), and the schedule isn’t exactly daunting during that stretch as its filled with teams that missed the playoffs a year ago and are probable to miss them again this season.
That’s the short-term outlook.
The long-term outlook is that a position that was a tremendous strength just two years ago with the two-headed monster of Murray and Marc-Andre Fleury in net is now just ... a giant question mark.
That does not mean anyone is at fault for it (they made the decision they had to make, and the only decision they could make).
That also does not mean it is a position weakness.
Because that is not necessarily the case, either. Murray could come back from this latest setback in a week or two, bounce back from his slow start, and be perfectly fine in net erasing any and all doubt.
DeSmith and Jarry are still unproven, inexperienced goalies that we don’t know much about it. It is entirely possible that one — or both — could take a big step forward in their development this season and become steady, reliable backups.
We just don’t know if any of that is going to happen — or when it is going to happen.
We don’t know if it is a good situation, we don’t know if it is a situation that needs addressed in a meaningful way at some point in the near future. All we know about it in the end is ... that we don’t really know about it.