On one hand for the Pittsburgh Penguins, life is very good. They have won nine straight games, and Evgeni Malkin hasn’t even made his season debut. They have the best penalty kill in the league. Their 5-on-5 play has been terrific under the systems and coaching of Mike Sullivan, the Pens are hanging around the top five in the NHL this season in expected goals for per 60 minutes AND in the top five lowest for expected goals against per 60.
But anyone who can remember as far back as last May will remember that the Pittsburgh goaltending can be an Achilles heel. While Tristan Jarry has been exceptional in 2021-22 and certainly worthy of the starting job, it would be incredibly foolish for the Pens to not have a solid backup option, just in case they need to turn to a different goalie in the playoffs.
Unfortunately given the performance of Casey DeSmith this season, they still need to find a solid backup option.
DeSmith has surrendered 3+ goals in 11 of his last 14 starts now, dating back to last season. DeSmith grades out as one of the worst goalies in the NHL this season, with a .897 5v5 save% (60 out of 62 NHL goalies with 300+ minutes this season) and in all situations has an unimpressive .888 save% on the season. DeSmith has an overall -5.01 Goals Saved Against Average, also ranking near the bottom of the league.
After playing on Sunday and not performing well, giving up five goals including an embarrassing ricochet from an off-target shot that helped fuel San Jose’s comeback attempt, DeSmith got another shot last night.
The Pens dominated the game, only allowing four first period shots, but then took a penalty late in the first. DeSmith was not there to pick them up, allowing Brayden Schenn to blow a shot past him just 20 seconds into the second period. A defensive breakdown from the Pens’ top pair contributed to a second goal against. Then Bryan Rust scored to get Pittsburgh some hope and momentum, only to watch DeSmith give it back by allowing a long-range shot just 19 seconds later.
It had only been 26 minutes into the game, but DeSmith surrendered three goals in a situation where it would be hard to imagine giving up any more. Sullivan had seen enough, taking the fairly rare choice to change netminders after only allowing three goals.
“I didn’t think Case was tracking it as well as he has been, so I just felt it was the right thing to do at the time for the team,” Sullivan said after the game. “That’s why we decided to make the change. It doesn’t diminish how we feel about Casey.”
For Sullivan, a coach who admittedly doesn’t like to chastise or be negative openly about players, that is about as harsh a public commentary as he will offer. Sullivan pulled out a quick hook, and it worked — Tristan Jarry did what he has done all season (perform awesomely) and the Pens roared back to win a game that they surely wouldn’t have won given the trajectory DeSmith had them on.
It does not benefit Sullivan to say something probably closer to the truth about DeSmith openly, since he might need to play DeSmith next game if Jarry rolls an ankle or has a stomach bug. It does Sully no good not to try and pump DeSmith up or keep things positive.
But general manager Ron Hextall doesn’t need to feel that way. Hextall has been on the job for almost a year, and has just a word like “observer” for his main role. He has quietly sat above all practices and games, taking in all the data. Clearly 95%+ of what he sees, he likes, as he hasn’t needed to make many changes. After all, the Pens have won a vast majority of the games since Hextall has been hired.
Changes though, will be in the air, if only because it’s professional hockey and nothing really lasts all that long. Hextall may have even started, in classic fashion, without many people noticing. He trimmed Sam Lafferty off the roster yesterday in a trade. Lafferty has been with the organization in some form or facet for almost a decade, yet had plateaued recently and wasn’t looking like he had much to offer going forward. And now he is gone.
With that in mind, Hextall has to really be concerned about what his backup goaltending situation is looking like now. DeSmith has struggled and recent chances to see if he could turn it around have failed. This is now an area that will require Hextall to address, lest he temp going into the playoffs without a viable option that the coach can be comfortable relying on. After last night and pulling DeSmith on just a third goal against, clearly that is not the case for the Pens right now where they can rely or should have any sort of confidence in the way their backup is playing.
There will be complications since Pittsburgh is tight to the salary cap. They don’t have a ton of assets to give up, and Hextall has been stingy about using his trade chips. But there is no more important position in hockey than the goaltender, and a rare weakness on these days with this roster has clearly emerged. At this point it now is on the general manager to upgrade and give the team the best chance moving forward.
Zero fans or insiders or media members had Jeff Carter to Pittsburgh on their radar last year, and yet it was a perfect fit by Hextall to add a veteran center who could help the team. If Hextall follows that mold, it might be best to predict the unpredictable for what direction he may choose to add, but at this point the observant former goalie can’t ignore the developing problem on his hands with this roster.