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Has the contract math changed for Matt Murray and the Penguins?

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Recent signings are pointing strongly towards goalies cashing in, a look at how that could affect upcoming negotiations between the Pens and their top guy

New York Islanders v Pittsburgh Penguins - Game Three Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images

Now that it’s almost August, the NHL activity is dying down more in the dead of summer. The biggest news around the league yesterday was Tampa Bay re-signing goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy to a mammoth eight year, $76 million extension ($9.5 million annual average).

Vasilevskiy, just turned 25 this week, is pretty much at the top of the charts these days as the only goalie to be a Vezina finalist in the past two seasons (and won it last month in Vegas for the 2018-19 season). Good time for him to cash in, and it’s actually a pretty fair deal compared to the summer’s earlier mega signing of Sergei Bobrovsky (who turns 31 before the season starts) to Florida for seven years and $70 million.

It’s a good time to be a high-end goalie.

Which, oh yeah, one of the Penguins few remaining items on the off-season checklist is to negotiate an extension with Matt Murray. Murray will play 2019-20 on a $3.75 million cap hit and then be a restricted free agent next summer.

General manager Jim Rutherford has always acted very decisively with his goalies while he’s been in Pittsburgh. Rutherford, of course, is a former goalie himself, and doesn’t tend to mess around at all with the position — preferring stability and to establish plans far out.

Consider that Marc-Andre Fleury was given a four-year extension (cap hit $5.75 million) in November 2014, when Rutherford was just months on the job and in plenty of time to keep Fleury from getting close to free agency. And that was 2014 Fleury, who wasn’t exactly coming off of prime performances. Still, that contract paid off for the Pens in 2017 when MAF was the driving factor in beating Columbus and Washington in the playoffs.

Similarly, Murray was re-signed to his current $3.75m cap hit that started in 2017-18 back in October 2016 - well ahead of his free agency the following summer. And, that was a masterful move too, being as Murray captured his second Stanley Cup that summer and surely is in a position to negotiate for a lot more money had Pittsburgh held off.

Which brings us to now. Rutherford’s history indicates he would love to sign Murray to his next deal within the next couple of months here. Maybe it will take to camp or shortly into the regular season — where as you can tell from the Murray and Fleury recent extensions, that’s where they were finalized.

But it’s worth wondering if the Bobrovsky and Vasilevskiy contracts have shifted the salary paradigm for the whole league. This is a look from CapFriendly,com on goalie cap hits for 2020-21 (when Vasilevskiy’s new deal kicks in, and also the first year for Murray’s next contract).

(Also note that Braden Holtby is an unrestricted free agent next summer, and with very similar stats to Bobrovsky [plus a title] he certainly will be in that upper echelon as well by the time the 2020 season starts).

That image shows a much different landscape than a couple months ago. For years Henrik Lundqvist at $8.5m was the highest cap hit goalie, but the ceiling of pay has dramatically been increased by Vasilevskiy , Bobrovsky and Carey Price (and possibly Holtby’s next contract). Will that upward momentum trickle down to Murray’s level as the second tier of goalies?

When our Adam Gretz wrote here about what to expect for Murray’s next deal, he boiled it down to:

The problem is projecting goalie performance is one of the most difficult things to do in hockey. If you gamble big and miss, you are stuck with an albatross contract at the most important position and there is not much you can do to get out of it. Now, again, I’m not saying I believe Murray’s career is going to go in that direction, but with goalies you just never know.

So for me? I’m hoping to get a four or five year deal in the $5-6 million range. If you have up the cap hit a little to shorten the deal, I almost think that is a better way to go then tying yourself into more years at a reduced cap hit.

The comparable players of John Gibson ($6.4 million hit) and Connor Hellebuyck ($6.16 million hit) really looked like where Murray’s range was. Both of those players had some restricted free agent years bought out, as Murray will as well.

But, Murray has two things those guys don’t have.

2016 NHL Stanley Cup Final - Game Six Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images
2017 NHL Stanley Cup Final - Game Six Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

So it will be interesting to see how that negotiation goes. Can (or will) Murray’s agent have any luck pushing that high-end goalies on the open market are making $9-10 million and that Murray only needs a couple more solid seasons to get to the open market and all those riches?

The Pens can obviously point out Murray hasn’t been an iron man and hasn’t been a Vezina finalist (or winner, or multi-time winner) like Vasilevskiy and Bobrovsky, respectively.

Or will both sides play almost a game of chicken to play out 2019-20 without an extension, see how the season goes, and talk in summer 2020 about a contract? At this point that option might make the most sense for both parties.

Murray will be betting on himself to have a huge year, and if he does, he will absolutely be striking gold with a huge money contract for $8, $9 million on his next contract if there’s like a best case scenario for him (say, 35+ wins, .925 save%, at least a Vezina nomination and he is the backbone of a long playoff run).

For the Pens, well they get to see more from Murray and get more information. Murray is only a restricted free agent next year, and in this climate teams simply don’t really make runs at other team’s RFAs. If Murray plays awesome, he cashes in. If he has an injury-filled or middling year, he’s probably in the Hellebuyck salary range, if not lower. Either way, it pushes off making the commitment.

A few months ago it seemed as elementary as a simple bullet point on a checklist to re-sign Matt Murray. Now with the upward flow of salaries it will be very interesting to see how the negotiations pay out, as well as the timing to see if Rutherford can and will follow his typical pattern to extend his number one goalie very early on in the process, or if this year will be different.