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Keeping Murray was always the right decision

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Last year, GM Rutherford had a goalie decision to make. When you break it down, it’s clear he made the correct choice.

NHL: Vegas Golden Knights at Pittsburgh Penguins Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

On June 21, 2003, the Pittsburgh Penguins selected goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury with the top overall pick in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft in Nashville. Over the course of the next 14 years, Fleury went on to become one of the cornerstones of the Penguins franchise that included Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Together, the trio won three Stanley Cups, and Fleury became the franchise’s all-time leader in almost every major statistical category for a goaltender.

Fast forward nine years to June 23, 2012. The NHL Entry Draft is being held in Pittsburgh where the Penguins selected another young goaltender, this time in the third round. His name was Matt Murray, and he quickly developed into a can’t miss prospect.

Jump ahead once again to June 2017, the Penguins have just been crowned back-to-back Stanley Cup champions in (ironically) Nashville. Fleury takes his skate with the Cup, then hands the trophy to a waiting Matt Murray. It turned out to be a rather symbolic moment between the two goalies.

2017 NHL Stanley Cup Final - Game Six Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Murray’s emergence combined the upcoming expansion draft for the new Vegas Golden Knights franchise meant GM Jim Rutherford had a decision on his hands. Protection rules allowed teams to only protect one goaltender, meaning the Penguins had to choose between the veteran Fleury, or the much younger but battle-tested Murray.

It’s a decision Rutherford never wanted to make, but he had to nonetheless. Fleury was a big part of the franchise for over a decade and a fan favorite, but when the cards were on the table, the choice was clear: Matt Murray was the future of the Penguins between the pipes.


Rutherford’s decision was met with mixed emotions from the Penguins fanbase, and everybody had an opinion on the situation. Fleury was much more than a goaltender to many fans, and he clearly meant a lot to the community and his teammates as well.

Unfortunately, hockey is a business, and Rutherford made a business decision based on what he thought was best for the team going forward. When you take into account all of the factors, it’s not hard to see why Rutherford decided to hold on to Murray, thus exposing Fleury to expansion where he was eventually selected by the Golden Knights.

Age

Maybe the most obvious reason the Penguins stuck with Murray was the age difference between himself and his predecessor Fleury. When the 2018-2019 season begins, Murray will only be 24-years-old while Fleury will be less than two months away from turning 34. A whole decade difference between the two really shifts the bar in favor of Murray when comparing the two.

Contract

Starting next season, Fleury will be entering a contract year (assuming he doesn’t sign an extension in the offseason) as he begins play on the final year of four year deal he originally signed with the Penguins back in 2014. His cap hit is $5.75 million, and he will be due a new contract next offseason. It will be interesting to see how Vegas handles Fleury’s next contract as he will be nearing 35 by the time that comes around.

As for Murray, he’s under contract for the next two seasons at a very team friendly cap number of $3.75 million per season. For a team that plays close to the cap like the Penguins, that extra $2 million in financial flexibility can go a long way. Murray will be due a new contract following the 2019-2020 season, but he’ll only be a restricted free agent at that time. This gives Rutherford and Co. two whole seasons to evaluate Murray and determine how to proceed in the future.

Upside

At this point in his career, you pretty much know what you are getting from Marc-Andre Fleury. He’s been in the league for 14 years and gone through some severe ups and downs, but overall he’s a better than league average goaltender on most nights. He really proved that this year, but we’ll get to that in a bit.

Murray, on the other hand, still has some developing to do. Sure, he’s already a two time Stanley Cup winner, but there’s still plenty of room left for him to grow. Ask anyone what part of his game needs the most work, and they’ll probably give you the same answers: a shaky glove hand, injury prone, streaky, etc.

At only 23, Murray is no where near close to his prime playing years as a goalie. If he continue to develop and reach the level everyone believes he can, he is the Penguins number one for the next decade plus.

2017-2018 Season

If Rutherford’s decision to keep Murray over Fleury was unpopular at the time, their respective performances during this season did nothing to help to help his case. Fleury posted career bests in both save percentage and goals against, while Murray in turn posted career worsts in both categories.

One thing they both have in common from this season was injuries. Fleury missed significant time early on due to a concussion and played in 46 games. Murray missed different stretches to injury combined with the passing of his father and played in only 49 games, equaling the amount he played last year when he was splitting time with Fleury.

Playoff numbers also fall in favor of Fleury, where he is once again having the best run of his career. In 15 games, Fleury has career highs in both save percentage and goals against. In turn, Murray posted the worst playoff numbers of his career in both categories.

Most goalies don’t post career best seasons at the age of 33, and it’s hard to say what his numbers would have looked like had he played the while time, but it was a great year for Fleury no doubt. It’s also hard to say if his strong play carries over to next season or he regresses a bit.

Murray battled the injury bug throughout the season and dealt with a serious family matter that certainly affected his play. There’s no reason to believe he won’t rebound and became a truly elite goalie for the Penguins going forward.

Pedigree

It’s hard to argue against the pedigree of either of these two goaltenders. Both are multiple-time Stanley Cup-winners who have the ability to take over games on any given night. Both Fleury and Murray are terrific at what they do and we were blessed to have them both in a Penguins uniform while we did.

Each of them can do this...

And this...

There should be no doubting the ability of either of these two goalies. Both are well above average at their job, and while we can harp on Murray’s struggles this past season, Fleury went through the same struggles for a longer stretch of time, including when it mattered most.

Playoffs

We discussed Murray’s and Fleury’s respective pedigrees above, but it’s important to separate the regular season and postseason. Murray has been in net for two Stanley Cup-clinching games, including a shutout in Game 6 against the Predators in 2017. Fleury has been in net for one, Game 7 against the Red Wings in 2009.

Both have one Stanley Cup run you could call their own. Fleury backstopped the team all the way through the 2009 run, while Murray did the job in 2016. The Pens don’t raise the Cup in 2017 without either of them. Those are just the facts.

NHL: Pittsburgh Penguins-Championshp Parade Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Both goalies have raised the Stanley Cup, and both have also faltered in the playoffs. Fleury has playoff blemishes such as Game 7 against Montreal in 2010, blowing a 3-1 lead in 2011, the Flyers debacle in 2012, losing his starting job to Vokoun in 2013, and another blown 3-1 lead in 2014.

One may argue, had Fleury posted numbers similar to this season during that putrid run from 2010-2014, there would be a few more banners hanging from the rafter in PPG Paints Arena.

Murray did not have a great 2018 postseason, but hopefully that is simply a blip on the radar.


Many people may read this and take it as a knock against Marc-Andre Fleury. It’s not, just like it’s not a full on praise piece for Matt Murray. It was simply explaining why Jim Rutherford made the right decision at the time and why it is still the right decision today.

It’s great to see what Fleury is doing in Vegas, but its also hard not to wonder what could have been had he played like this during that rough stretch during his time in Pittsburgh. Cheering for Fleury now doesn’t make you a bad fan; he was an indelible part of the Penguins rebirth and will always be an important part of franchise history.

Sure, Murray had an uneven year and could have performed better, but at the age of 23, his talent was simply too good to pass up — especially when you could have lost him for nothing to an expansion draft. This is the guy who defended back-to-back Stanley Cup champions as a rookie. He certainly earned a fair shake at being the true number one.

Murray was given a baptism by fire during the 2016 playoffs where he really made a name for himself, and grew his legend a year later when he took back the net from Fleury in the Eastern Conference Final. The kid knows what it takes to win, and with continued development, he’ll be raising another Stanley Cup in Pittsburgh before its all said and done.

It’s impossible to predict the future for either of these goaltenders, as well as how the rest of their careers will pan out, but Rutherford was forced to make a decision. It was a calculated decision based on several different factors.

In the end, he went with the young gun in Matt Murray. It’s hard to argue he really had any other choice.