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Penguins training camp preview: Dubas shakes up the goalie crease

Will the Jarry-Nedeljkovic tandem pay off?

Pittsburgh Penguins v Detroit Red Wings Photo by Dave Reginek/NHLI via Getty Images

The Penguins get on the ice officially and formally one week from today. With the dawn of a new season upon us, let’s check out how the Penguins stand at various positions. First up, the goalie position.

For the first time since Matt Murray was traded in 2020, the Penguins experienced some turnover in net at the NHL level with the departure of Casey DeSmith. For a while it looked like it could have been even more of a change than that since Tristan Jarry made it into the waters of unrestricted free agent, but opted to return to Pittsburgh on a five-year contract that carries a $5.375 million annual cap hit.

This move to find a starting goalie answered one of the biggest questions about personnel that the Penguins had in front of them this off-season. New GM Kyle Dubas did his due diligence to learn more about Jarry from coaches who knew him best in Mike Sullivan and Andy Choido. Dubs consulted the medical staff and even took a visit to meet with Jarry. Questions about Jarry’s injury from last year and mindset moving forward were satisfactorily put to rest for Dubas, who also had little alternative but to place his trust in Jarry with a long-term contract in this cycle.

New Year Day’s Winter Classic proved to be a sign of things to come for Jarry’s 2023 so far, Jarry left the game mid-way through with injury and struggled from there on out. Jarry had a 9-8-3 record, .899 save% and 3.04 GAA. In the 2022 part of the 2022-23 season, Jarry had a 15-5-4 record and .917 save%, numbers he will be looking to get back towards moving forward.

Beyond that, Dubas also made the eyebrow-raising move to sign Alex Nedeljkovic in free agency to a one-year contract. Nedeljkovic looked like a goalie on the rise in the 2020-21 season when he carried a .932 save% in 23 games with Carolina (and a .920% while starting nine playoff games for the Hurricanes). However, Carolina moved him to Detroit and it’s been downhill for Nedeljkovic since. He was the Red Wings’ starter in 2021-22, appearing in 59 games but the change of teams led to a drop in his stats to a .901 save%. As a response, Detroit brought in Ville Husso for last season and had Nedeljkovic work on his game mostly in AHL Grand Rapids last year.

The add of Nedeljkovic was a shock being as at the time Pittsburgh had long-time steady veteran Casey DeSmith entrenched as their backup. However, that would change, when the Pens included DeSmith to balance out salaries in the August blockbuster trade to bring Erik Karlsson to Pittsburgh. With DeSmith gone, the Nedeljkovic addition made more sense.

Interestingly enough, Dubas also signed the other Detroit backup last season, Magnus Hellberg, through free agency to once again join Nedeljkovic in the same organization. Hellberg, 32, was claimed on waivers twice last season. He only has 23 career NHL games under his belt, 17 of which came last season with the Red Wings (to the tune of only a .885 save%). Hellberg saw his early career stall out by 2017, but then found redemption going to the KHL and becoming one of that league’s top goalies before hopping back over to the NHL ranks in 2022.

The Pens have had to use three goalies in each of the last three seasons, so based on that recent history the chances to see all three goalies at the NHL level look pretty decent.

Further down the list, the Pens have a pair of young goalies in Joel Blomqvist and Taylor Gauthier to fill minor league spots. Hope and expectation are especially high on Blomqvist, a 2020-second round pick, as he begins his career in an NHL organization. At just 21-years old, Blomqvist has some time to grow and develop and figure out the game on the smaller rinks with the promising young goalie.

At the top, it will fall on Jarry as the most important piece of the puzzle. The Pens received middle of the pack goaltending last year overall, but situationally tended to fail them as the season went along, which has room for improvement. Gone is something of the safety blanket in DeSmith, replaced with a younger and potentially more talented backup, yet also one who has struggled at times and displayed a low floor.

It’s an interesting twist that Dubas has gone with in net, and as the Pens embark on their first season under his guidance they will see how these decisions made will alter goalie performance for a club looking to bounce back to the playoffs.