Marc-Andre Fleury is a great goaltender. He's also one of hockey's most universally liked players, one of the good guys. He has no timetable for his recovery from a second concussion sustained this season.
Our hearts go out to him. And yet, while no one would ever classify two concussions as a good thing, the Pittsburgh Penguins have squeezed lemonade out of that lemon by putting youngster Matt Murray in the spotlight. He's won two straight starts while Fleury recovers. Murray has won five straight overall, and he's 7-2 with a 1.88 goals-against average and .933 save percentage in 2015-16, his maiden NHL voyage.
The key takeaway from Murray, 21, dominating immediately at the sport's highest level: nobody who knew anything about him expected anything less. The kid has looked like a star in the making for a while now. He rates as the Pens' No. 1 prospect and sits 39th among all NHL prospects in THN Future Watch 2016. He posted pre-forward-pass numbers in his first full AHL season a year ago, going 25-10-1 with a 1.58 goals-against average, .941 save percentage and 12 shutouts in just 40 appearances. He set an all-time league record for longest shutout streak at 304 minutes and 11 seconds. He won the Aldege 'Baz' Bastien Memorial Award as the circuit's top goalie.
Murray, 6-foot-4 and just 178 pounds, had a bit of filling out to do entering 2015-16 but was NHL ready otherwise. Not that it meant he'd start the year in Steeltown. Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford, a former NHL goalie, didn't believe playing only a dozen or so games would be as good for Murray's development as starting in the AHL for another year.
"Especially in the first couple of years, playing games is really important for your development," Rutherford said when we spoke this winter between Murray's first call-up and his most recent one. "The AHL is a great development league, and it's really not easy for goalies or defensemen to play in that league compared to the NHL, where there’s more structure in the game. Matt started with just a great first year and, of course, you’re always looking at that sophomore year as to where a guy falls, if he’s followed it up and been every bit as good again in his second year. We felt despite the fact he had a really good camp, getting at least two good years in the American Hockey League with a lot of games would be good for him."
Murray's first call-up this season came in December and was one of necessity, as Fleury was out with his first concussion. Murray found himself filing in for an injured Fleury again this past week but had already been up with the Pens since late February. They decided to roll with Murray over Jeff Zatkoff as the primary NHL backup. They changed their tune about giving Murray more AHL games, as he seemingly had little left to learn in the AHL. Instead, when Fleury is healthy, the hope for now is the veteran rubs off on the rookie.
"He doesn’t have to be a mentor – it’s more about the mental personalities, how they fit together as a tandem," Rutherford said. "Certainly in our situation I’m not concerned about that at all. First of all our No. 1 goalie is as good a person as anybody and would help anybody, from stopping in a snowstorm and changing a tire on an interstate to helping anybody as a teammate. Matt has that certain makeup, too, so he can fall in line. The good news is Pittsburgh has the ideal situation as far as goalies getting along."
It's great for the Pens that their best two goalies are class acts who will work well together, but Murray's brilliance will create some tough decisions between now and the summer. First off, assuming Fleury returns in time for the playoffs, do you send Murray back to the AHL for the post-season? A healthy Fleury will start every Penguins playoff game, and the team's affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton is a Calder Cup contender. At the same time, Fleury's post-season history is checkered. Even when he's at his best, he's been known to lay an egg. With questions about his health compounding things, maybe the Pens would feel safer having Murray on their bench for every playoff game. He'd be quite the insurance policy.
The bigger question Murray's emergence raises: should Rutherford and the Penguins explore a Fleury trade in the off-season? It's easier said than done, of course. Fleury has a limited no-movement clause and can submit a list of 12 teams to which he wouldn't accept a deal. He's also one of the best two goaltenders in franchise history and commands a certain level of loyalty from the team brass. He's won 357 NHL games, ranking 18th all-time, and he's just 31, so he would have a real chance to surpass Patrick Roy for second in NHL history someday. Would the franchise want to see Fleury do it in another uniform? Especially when he's still playing at quite a high level?
Still, since Murray has played so well to this point, he makes things interesting. Fleury carries a $5.75-million cap hit for three more seasons after this one. A potential expansion draft looms for the 2017 off-season, and Murray's entry-level deal expires after 2016-17. He would have to be protected under the projected expansion draft format if the Pens wanted to keep him. He's too valuable. He's already made Team North America's 2016 World Cup roster. Teams will only be allowed to protect one goalie in an expansion draft, meaning Pittsburgh will lose one of Fleury or Murray. They could also use the threat of an expansion draft to make Fleury waive his no-trade clause this summer, as he could at least control his own destiny and eliminate 12 potential landing spots. Wouldn't that be better than being forced onto a Las Vegas team sure to be years from contention? We don't know yet that players with no-trades won't be exempt from being claimed, but the guess here is that will be the case. Otherwise the player pool will be too weak.
Having two great goalies? It's a luxurious problem. But the Pens are one of many teams who will have to take a long, hard look at some expensive talent in the off-season with expansion on the horizon. The expectation is teams will have to shed 25 percent of their salary. That means some good players must go.
Matt Larkin is a writer and editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin