Matt Murray is expected to get the start for the Pittsburgh Penguins on Tuesday night, and that really should not be much of a surprise.
The Penguins have been off since Saturday, are rested, and are playing at home against a white hot divisional opponent that is riding a 14-game point streak entering the night (13-0-1 during that streak). It is the exact type of game you want your starting goalie to be playing in.
So there really is no issue here with that decision.
What stands out, though, is that the this will be the Penguins’ 21st game of the season and it will already be Murray’s 17th start. That puts him on a pace for roughly 66 starts this season, which is a massive workload for a starting goalie in today’s NHL. The only games he has not started this season have been the second half of back-to-backs where Tristan Jarry has been given the starts. Jarry has not started one game this season that was not the second half of a back-to-back situation.
Last year only one goalie started 66 games (Minnesota’s Devan Dubnyk), while only seven others played more than 60.
The year before that only two goalies started 66 games, with only seven others starting more than 60.
I do not want to use the phrase “load management” here (because I just hate the way it sounds — even if I agree with the mindset behind it) but there seems to be a lot of benefit behind limiting a starting goalie’s workload over during the regular season. Goalie platoons and goalie tandems are quite the “in” thing right now and a lot of teams that go on deep playoff runs have starting goalies that were kept around 55-60 games (or less) during the regular season.
Since the start of the 2013-14 there have been 17 instances of a goalie starting 65 games in a regular season. Here is how those teams ended up finishing:
- Five of them ended up missing the playoffs entirely
- Seven of them ended up losing in Round 1 of the Playoffs
- Only four made it beyond Round 1, and only one of them made it beyond Round 2 (the 2015-16 San Jose Sharks lost in the Stanley Cup Final)
On the other side of that, here are the number of regular season starts for every Stanley Cup Final goalie dating back to the start of the same year.
- Jonathan Quick, Los Angeles Kings (2013-14): 49 starts; Henrik Lundqvist, New York Rangers: 62 starts
- Corey Crawford, Chicago Blackhawks (2014-15): 57 starts; Ben Bishop, Tampa Bay Lightning: 59 starts
- Matt Murray, Pittsburgh Penguins (2015-16): 13 starts (plus 31 in the AHL); Martin Jones, San Jose Sharks: 65 starts
- Matt Murray, Pittsburgh Penguins (2016-17): 49 starts; Pekka Rinne, Nashville Predators: 60 starts
- Braden Holtby, Washington Capitals (2017-18): 54 starts; Marc-Andre Fleury, Vegas Golden Knights: 46 starts
- Jordan Binnington, St. Louis Blues (2018-19): 32 starts (plus 18 in the AHL); Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins: 45 starts
Average number of starts for those goalies (including AHL starts) in those seasons: 53.3
While Jones made the Stanley Cup Final with the Sharks in 2015-16 while breaking the 65-start mark, it is also worth noting that before that season he had only started 29 games in the NHL for his career, so it is not like he had a ton of mileage on his tires at the start of that year.
I mentioned this over at NBC about a week when looking at Vegas’ workload with Marc-Andre Fleury, but his most successful postseason runs came in the years where he started the fewest regular season games, while some of his worst postseasons came in the years where he started the most.
The Rangers did not start making noise in the playoffs with Lundqvist until his workload went from 70 starts per year down to around 60 (or below).
Maybe this is nothing more than anecdotal evidence and an example of correlation not equally causation. Maybe a lot of the teams that did poorly with their starters getting large start totals did poorly because their starters simply were not very good, or did not play up to their level of expectation. It is also worth pointing that in a lot of those Stanley Cup cases injuries certainly played a role in the lower start totals (Quick in 2013-14; Murray in both of his years).
But it is still hard to ignore even the anecdotal evidence because it does make sense. Playing goalie over the course of an entire regular season is a grueling, physical grind, and even if you are not being asked to stop a ton of shots every shot attempt and every second of possession in your zone requires movement. That all adds up over the regular season and can leave a goalie playing at less than their best when the playoffs roll around.
So that brings us back to the Penguins’ situation.
Just looking at the remaining schedule they still have 12 more back-to-back situations ahead of them, and assuming Jarry gets the start in every second game in those sets that would be 12 more starts, giving him 16 on the season — the exact pace he is on for right now.
That is not enough for him, and it would mean too many starts for Murray.
If I had to guess I would say at least some the reluctance to start Jarry more early in the season might have something to do with the team’s ongoing injury situation that has seen them consistently playing an undermanned lineup. With the team shorthanded and without several of its best players there is almost certainly extra added incentive to play the starter more, especially since your current backup has so little NHL experience and with the playoff race in the Metropolitan Division (and the Eastern Conference as a whole) being so tight you do not want to give away points. But even with the injury situation the team has played well defensively, limited shots and chances against, and insulated whichever goalie has played probably far better than any of us would have expected.
There is also the fact that Jarry has played extremely well in his limited action, especially when you consider he has always played behind a tired team (second half of back-to-backs).
He is probably earned a few extra starts.
It would do him well to get that added experience, and it would probably do Murray and the Penguins well in the long run.