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Will Jim Rutherford’s goalie gamble pay off?

Will waiving Casey DeSmith to keep Tristan Jarry end up being a good move or come back to bite the Pens?

Pittsburgh Penguins v Colorado Avalanche Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Being an NHL general manager is like making a series of very high-profile bets that play out for the world to see. Some hit, some miss, and no one wins ‘em all.

One such decision for the Penguins has played out and been in the news lately — but not one you might first think about. Anaheim waived winger Daniel Sprong today. In a controversial move among Pens fans last December, Pittsburgh moved on from Sprong and we wrote on PensBurgh the gamble was on if the Pens had correctly evaluated him or not.

Option A: Mike Sullivan has made a correct decision and Sprong isn’t all that good at the NHL level


Option B: The Penguins have made a painfully incorrect evaluation costing them a quality young player

If it’s the first scenario, then the Penguins are totally justified in trading Sprong at this point (while he still has some sort of appreciable value) and the moaning from fans is just rooted in not having information of the situation.

After all, coach Mike Sullivan runs a high-octane, offensive-minded powerhouse team. Why wouldn’t he want a young winger who has torn up all the lesser leagues if he was good enough to contribute at the NHL level?


So if it’s the case that Sullivan saw Sprong and Crosby early in the season for some practices, they didn’t mesh, Sullivan analyzed the situation and found Sprong not to be of NHL caliber, then he’s right and all is well. For the Pens organization at this point, it’s about the best case scenario (sorry, Daniel) if it turns out that Sprong was simply correctly judged to not really be that good of an NHL option.

And, well, give coach Mike Sullivan and GM Jim Rutherford credit - they came out winners on this one. Sprong flunked through Anaheim, being a healthy scratch at times last year and failing to impress now three different coaches with the Ducks. Meanwhile, the Pens picked up defenseman Marcus Pettersson who fit in well and is looking like a middle-pair solid player for Pittsburgh.

In other words, the gamble paid off in spades. Sprong may not have ever fit or excelled in Pittsburgh, but being waived by Anaheim shows the Pens weren’t wrong in their evaluation in this case, just as they weren’t in the decision to move on from Derrick Pouliot.

Fast forward to today, and the situation is similar though not identical when it came to the backup goalie situation. Rutherford was seeking to make a trade of either Casey DeSmith or Tristan Jarry, but no trades were available as the supply of well-regarded goalies about to hit waivers (including Garret Sparks in Vegas and Eric Comrie in Winnipeg) out-weighed the demand by suitors.

In this instance what did the Pens do? They considered finances and waived DeSmith. DeSmith is also four years older than Jarry, and has a more prohibitive contract at $1.25 million for three years, compared to Jarry having just a $675,000 cap hit for a single year.

In short, on the waiver wire, one would think Jarry perhaps a more intriguing pickup. DeSmith, though, has a pretty good track record in the NHL and could represent and upgrade over several team’s goalie situations. Is a three season commitment enough to scare them away? We’ll soon find out.

And beyond just whether or not DeSmith clears waivers or not, future performance weighs even larger. Because beyond just whether or not Pittsburgh can retain a third goalie, the true bigger factor in their season is just how their backup goalie who remains in the NHL will perform.

Jarry has been considered to have a pretty solid preseason, however his NHL career resume with a .906 save percentage and a 2.84 GAA leaves a lot to be desired. And we all know Matt Murray hasn’t always been an ironman in the net, typically he gets dinged up with minor injuries every season.

Is Jarry going to hold the fort if needed? It’s a big ask, but that’s the backup goalie job description. DeSmith showed last season that he can do the job to help the team in Murray’s absence. Could Jarry?

It remains unknown at this point, but the unknown is a gamble that Rutherford and the Pens have chosen to take. And while it’s perhaps one that they felt they had no other choice in order to remain under the salary cap, it’s still one they’ve voluntarily steered into over the past few months and years with curious (to use a kind word) other gambles that have stocked their salary structure with high priced players in low-end roles.

Will this latest gamble for Rutherford pay off? Part of the fun is watching it all unfold. The Pens have seemingly been on the right end of some player decisions lately when it comes to keep or move determinations lately, but the salary cap wasn’t totally in play as it was for this backup goalie decision.

Did Pittsburgh keep Jarry because they think he’s better? Or simply because he would save the money they needed for the cap? The answer to that, along with if anyone claims DeSmith and to what level Jarry performs will be fascinating to watch as the season goes along.