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The Penguins need to reassess their goaltending depth

Tristan Jarry is bearing one of the heaviest workloads in the NHL. Can he keep it up?

Pittsburgh Penguins v Buffalo Sabres
Tristan Jarry and Casey DeSmith.

Heading into Sunday, Nov. 28, just four goaltenders in the NHL have started a league-high 17 games for their clubs.

  • Robin Lehner (VGK): 9-8-0
  • Juuse Saros (NSH): 9-7-1
  • Thatcher Demko (VAN): 6-10-1
  • Tristan Jarry (PIT): 10-4-3

One of these names might look familiar: he’s the goaltender who made 141 saves on the last 143 shots he faced while in the Penguins’ net.

Jarry is doing very well among this group— after all, he's the only one with a double-digit win column. Still, it seems seems that at this point in the campaign (when all teams have played between 17 and 23 games) a starting goaltender would ideally be facing a slightly lighter workload. (Jarry has played all but four of the Penguins’ contests this season.)

What are these four teams’ relationships with their respective backup goaltenders?

Laurent Brossoit (VGK): 3-1-0

Brossoit spent three seasons as a backup to Connor Hellebuyck in Winnipeg. Signed by Vegas the day after they sent one half of their 2020-21 Jennings Trophy-winning duo (what was his name again?) to the Blackhawks, Brossoit will now aim for his first winning season since 2018-19. He is an experienced NHL backup playing behind a strong team, but he’s certainly not Vezina Trophy-winning Marc-Andre Fleury— which might be the reason the Golden Knights are currently leaning so heavily on Lehner.

Columbus Blue Jackets v Vegas Golden Knights
Brossoit makes a save against the Blue Jackets on Nov. 20.
Photo by David Becker/NHLI via Getty Images

David Rittich (NSH): 1-1-0

After rookie Connor Ingram (1-1-0) made his first two NHL appearances during Rittich’s stint on the COVID-19 protocol list in October, Rittich returned to serve as backup— a relatively new role for the goaltender, who started for the Flames from 2018 to 2020. As his time in net declined in 2020-21, he recorded a 4-7-1 record in 12 Calgary starts before a midseason trade led him to record a .888 SV% in four appearances with the Maple Leafs. Those losing records may have cautioned the Predators to turn to Saros for the large majority of their starts so far.

Nashville Predators v Montreal Canadiens
Rittich faces the Canadiens on Nov. 20.
Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

Jaroslav Halak (VAN): 0-3-1

It’s strange to see Halak in a backup role, and stranger still to see him not in an Islanders or Bruins uniform: but here he is nonetheless, helping to backstop a barebones Canucks team. He has yet to claim a win; his best effort came against the visiting Ducks on Nov. 9, when he made 27 saves to earn Vancouver a point in an overtime loss. But Halak is 36 years old, and his workload is never going to return to what it once was, so we can likely expect Demko to continue shouldering the heavy majority of the workload as the season progresses.

NHL: NOV 21 Blackhawks at Canucks
Halak warms up before facing the Blackhawks on Nov. 21.
Photo by Devin Manky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Casey DeSmith (PIT): 0-3-1

DeSmith allowed 14 goals against in three starts heading into Saturday. Because of that, it seemed like the coaching staff lost faith in their backup netminder, whom they benched for two straight weeks. That decision was cemented when Jarry’s glove started to heat up.

It can’t be said that DeSmith was the sole reason the Penguins lost to the Canadiens on Nov. 27— and the 6-3 final score, padded by a cluster of empty-net goals, looks worse on the surface than in reality— but it doesn’t help DeSmith’s case that it’s nearly December, and Pittsburgh has yet to win while he is in the crease.

Montreal Canadiens v Pittsburgh Penguins
DeSmith faces Montreal’s Jonathan Drouin on a breakaway on Nov. 27,
Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images

These four teams that have reached to the same starting goaltender for 17 starts have some unfortunate similarities. They have each focused on one backup, displaying a general lack of options (excepting Nashville) in their organizations’ minor-level goaltending depth. And they all have reasons to not rely regularly on their available NHL backups.

The Penguins might be able to continue their current ratio of leaning on Jarry for 77% of their games. After all, Connor Hellebuyck, who led the NHL in starts in 2020-21, played 80% of the Jets’ 56 games.

But during a season plagued by unpredictable illness-related absences, it’s a very real possibility that a team’s starter could be unavailable at any time. In fact, Jarry has already been put in COVID-19 protocol once this season.

Like the other teams with a singular starting netminder, the Penguins seem uncomfortable leaning on their current No. 2 goaltender. Is it time to look within the Pittsburgh organization to make sure they have a solid option, if the need for a more regularly-appearing backup should arise?