The goaltending situation was the biggest question mark for the Pittsburgh Penguins at the start of the 2021-22 season, and at the halfway point it has been a bit of a mixed bag of some really good, and some not so good.
The really good development is that Tristan Jarry has rebounded in a big way and been one of the top performing goalies in the league so far, earning himself his second All-Star game appearance. He had one of his best games of the season on Sunday in a 3-2 shootout win against the Winnipeg Jets where he kept the team in the game early on by making highlight reel save after highlight reel save. Most of them against Kyle Connor, who seemed to have an outstanding scoring chance every single time he was on the ice.
The not so good development has been the play of backup Casey DeSmith who has been unable to consistently find his game this season, an issue that goes back to the tail end of the 2020-21 season.
Some advanced number on both goalies.
DeSmith started on Friday in Columbus and was benched after the first period after giving up two relatively ugly goals in the first period. That was a noteworthy decision by head coach Mike Sullivan because it was the second half of a back-to-back, while Jarry had already been given a significant amount of playing time. Usually in a back-to-back the backup goalie is going to play the entire game no matter what in an effort to give the starter a rest. That obviously did not happen here. The other important part of that decision is that is the second start in a row that DeSmith has been benched very early, in a game that was still close, as part of a back-to-back situation. That should tell you everything you need to know about the level of confidence the coaching staff has in him.
After Friday’s game Sullivan talked about DeSmith coming back from a long layoff and the team not really putting him in a position to succeed given the amount of practice time, and there is probably some truth to that. Being a backup goalie is a tough enough role on its own because you are never going to really get consistent playing time, and a long layoff between games can definitely be a significant adjustment.
The problem, though, is that DeSmith’s struggles go back further than just this one start. In his past 15 starts dating back to the end of the 2020-21 season he has managed only an .877 save percentage, has allowed at least three goals 11 times, at least four goals seven times, and five or more goals four times. He has also been benched three times (including Friday’s game where he allowed two goals in one period of hockey).
If you are looking at the Penguins’ roster right now and their season this is probably the one glaring weakness you would like to see addressed.
The question is how much is that worth, and how much does it matter.
We need to start with the second question here first, because ideally your backup goalie does not really play that much, especially in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Ideally being the key word. But the last two times the Penguins won the Stanley Cup in 2015-16 and 2016-17 they needed two goalies (and in one of those years three goalies) to get through the playoffs. Not only that, for as good as Jarry has played this season he is still going to be a question mark until he shows this level of play in the playoffs. Maybe that is unfair, maybe it is unreasonable, maybe it is underselling him and his performance this season. That is just how these things work. A more proven safety net might not be the worst thing to have in case you need to turn to that for one reason or another in the playoffs.
The other aspect of all of this is the simple fact you do not want to let Jarry get burned out from a heavy workload in the regular season, especially with a pretty condensed schedule ahead in February and March with all of the rescheduled games. You want to be able to get Jarry some games off, and you also still want to be able to win them.
So what are the options?
Louis Domingue is getting a lot of attention for the way he played in his one start this season, but I am not sure if he is the answer. Aside from the fact he is injured, his NHL track record has been spotty in his various stops around the league. It would be a gamble.
In terms of potential trade partners and potential rentals two names that stand out are Jaroslav Halak in Vancouver and Braden Holtby in Dallas. Both are pending unrestricted free agents after this season, both are relatively cheap against the salary cap, both have track records of playing at a high level in the NHL, and both might be able to be had before the trade deadline. If nothing else, it would not hurt to explore the cost.
Either way, it is a position that needs to be addressed in some form because it is becoming clear the Penguins do not really trust the current backup, and they are going to need a second goalie to play some games here in the second half of the season. You also want to have a backup goalie you can count if you need them during the Stanley Cup Playoffs.