Monday’s injury is Murray’s fifth in the past 19 months. At what point do the Penguins start worrying about his ability to handle years of starting duty?
Matt Murray’s injury Monday night was scary enough in a vacuum. No team wants to see its starting goaltender, who knows nothing but Stanley Cup victories through his first two NHL seasons, knocked out of a game with a potentially serious lower-body injury. But what should frighten the Penguins even more is how familiar it is now to see Murray, only 23, getting helped off the ice by teammates.
There’s nothing he could do to avoid getting crashed into by Philadelphia Flyers right winger Jakub Voracek. It was a fluke. But that doesn’t change the fact these injuries are becoming a trend in Murray’s short career. There was the April 2016 collision with then-Flyer Brayden Schenn, leaving Murray with a concussion and forcing the Penguins to start the playoffs with Jeff Zatkoff as their starting goalie since Marc-Andre Fleury was also concussed. There was the broken hand sustained in the 2016 World Cup while Murray was competing with Team North America. He lost a couple games last winter to a lower-body injury, too, and then of course came the injury in Game 1 of Pittsburgh’s first-round playoff matchup with Columbus, sustained during pre-game warmup. It cost Murray the first two rounds before he returned to take back the crease from Fleury in the Eastern Conference final and help the Pens repeat as Cup champs.
Including the latest one sustained Monday night, that’s five injuries for Murray in the past 19 months. Three of them are serious, assuming the latest one has a long-term diagnosis, which appears to be the case given how much trouble Murray had leaving the ice. Even if Murray has the world’s worst luck, it doesn’t change the fact these things keep happening to him. He’s been open about his struggles to beef up his 6-foot-4, 178-pound frame, and it’s time to ask whether that lack of body mass has made him brittle. There’s no doubting his talent – he has a .920 regular season save percentage and .928 playoff SP since debuting in 2015-16 – but I wouldn’t fault GM Jim Rutherford for worrying about his star stopper’s future.
Which is why Tristan Jarry has a bigger opportunity in front of him than it may seem. Jarry is no run-of-the-mill backup. He’s long been one of the franchise’s better prospects. He backstopped the Edmonton Oil Kings to the Memorial Cup in 2014 and was outstanding for AHL Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in 2016-17 with a starter’s workload of 45 games, compiling a 2.15 goals-against average and .925 SP. So the Penguins weren’t just blowing smoke post-game when they voiced their confidence in Jarry as a stopgap. He has some legitimate pedigree.
It’s fair to wonder what happens if Jarry goes on a run. Murray has a disappointing .906 SP this season, his first as an unquestioned starter after Fleury got claimed in the expansion draft, and the Penguins have labored to a 13-10-3 record, mediocre by reigning champion standards, clinging to a one-point lead for the final Eastern Conference wildcard spot. What if Murray misses 10 or more games and Jarry helps the Penguins catch fire during that stretch? Might it spark a goaltending controversy? It’s not like the Pens have committed to an enormous contract extension yet paying Murray through his UFA years. He’s playing through a bridge contract right now with a $3.75-million AAV through the 2019-20 season. It’s not “you have to play me no matter what” money.
Penguins fans, of course, shouldn’t panic over this idea. I’m not suggesting Murray shouldn’t be the Penguins starter. I’ve been his biggest supporter during his rise over the past few seasons – ask my colleagues, who regularly make fun of my Murray man crush – but I wonder if his grip on the starting job in Pittsburgh stays air tight if he keeps sustaining these injuries. They’re becoming as regular as Kris Letang’s injuries.
Chances are, Jarry is good enough but not great and/or that Rutherford trades for some temporary veteran help (using disgruntled blueliner Ian Cole?), with Murray returning in relatively short order and locking down the long-term job. But how many more times can Murray get hurt before we have to question his ability to hold-up as a bellcow starting goalie?