Patrik Laine did it again Tuesday night. For the third time this season, and third time before his 19th birthday, Laine scored a hat trick. He’s got 26 goals now, one off the rookie scoring lead and four back of league leader Sidney Crosby. And on the same night, Auston Matthews continued his dream rookie season, firing home two goals of his own to bring his total to 27 on the year, while Mitch Marner stayed ahead of all rookies with an assist that brought his point total to 48.
It’s not just those three rookies turning heads, though. There’s also been the superb play of William Nylander, a teammate of Matthews’ and Marner’s in Toronto, the continued emergence of Zach Werenski as a legitimate top-four defender in Columbus and a litany of others who have laid their claims to the title of league’s best rookie. Everyone from Matthew Tkachuk to Sebastian Aho has had their share of Calder talk.
But with everyone swept up in the top scorers and the brilliance of some of the fresh faces, it’s hard not to feel as if Matt Murray’s being overlooked in Pittsburgh. Tuesday, while Laine was torching the Dallas Stars and Matthews and Marner were helping their Maple Leafs blowout the New York Islanders, Murray was hard at work in Pittsburgh, stopping all 29 shots he faced en route to his third shutout of the season. Murray, we need remind you, is still a rookie.
Sure, Murray has a Stanley Cup to his name and he was at the very least in the conversation for the Conn Smythe, but by the league’s standards, Murray still counts as a rookie. He played only 13 regular season games prior to the start of 2016-17, and the 21 games Murray played in the post-season during the 2015-16 season don’t count toward his total. Take umbrage with that if you will, but the fact is that no matter how many games Murray saw in the playoffs, he was going to be a rookie this season.
We can debate the eligibility rules all we want, and that debate was surely had last year when it came to Artemi Panarin’s candidacy, and subsequent victory, given his time in the KHL, but Murray’s situation is not unique to him. John Gibson finished seventh in Calder voting last season despite having 30 combined regular season and post-season games under his belt prior to the start of the campaign, Jake Allen was eligible and finished 17th and 10th in Calder voting in back-to-back years, Torey Krug played 15 playoffs games before finishing fourth in 2013-14 and Logan Couture played 40 games — 25 regular season, 15 post-season — before his second-place Calder finish in 2009-10.
So, given that Murray is eligible, it might be time we start giving some consideration to his candidacy. And when he’s compared to rookie goaltenders, there’s no one even close.
There are 18 freshman goaltenders who’ve suited up this season, none of whom have seen more action than Murray and not a single one who has had near Murray’s level of success. In 31 games, Murray has a sparkling 21-6-2 record, and the next closest rookie netminder to Murray is Juuse Saros. The Nashville Predators rookie has won five of his 11 starts. Yes, that means there’s a 16-win gap between Murray and the next winningest rookie goaltender. It’s incredibly difficult to be named rookie of the year as a goaltender, however. Only eight netminders have managed the feat in the post-expansion era.
That means for a rookie goaltender to win the Calder, he almost certainly has to be one of the very best at his position in the league, which in turn puts him in the upper echelon of all players in the league for a given season. What better measure of that is there for a goaltender than finishing as one of the Vezina Trophy finalists?
Murray’s going to have a tough climb to put himself into the Vezina conversation, though, especially with the seasons Devan Dubnyk, Sergei Bobrovsky and Braden Holtby have put forth. But if there’s anyone who could sneak into contention, it might be Murray. As of Wednesday, he ranks fourth out of all qualified goaltenders with a .926 save percentage, sixth in the league with a 2.27 goals-against average, is tied for eighth with three shutouts and is one of only 16 goaltenders to have won 20 or more games this season. Murray’s case as a Vezina finalist is more impressive when you consider a couple of other numbers, too.
For instance, there are 38 goaltenders who have played 1,000 minutes or more at 5-on-5 this season, and of those only Dubnyk and Holtby have posted a better save percentage than Murray’s .937 mark. In addition, if Murray played more, he’d almost certainly be among the league leaders in wins. Consider that of all goaltenders to play at least 30 games, Murray boasts the second-best win percentage in the league, behind only Dubnyk.
This is to say that where it matters most, Murray has been one of the three-best goaltenders in the league for the duration of the season. He’s deserving of a Vezina nomination. Will he win? Almost certainly not. The Vezina is Dubnyk’s to lose at this point, but that Murray has a shot at becoming a finalist for the award is significant when it comes to the Calder.
Since 1981, when the Vezina turned into an award for the most outstanding goaltender, six of eight netminders who have been finalists for the award have also finished top-three in Calder voting. That list includes Grant Fuhr, Tom Barrasso, Ron Hextall, Ed Belfour, Jim Carey and Steve Mason. Coincidentally, the two odd-men out both played for the New York Rangers. Henrik Lundqvist and Mike Richter had identical third-place Vezina, fourth-place Calder finishes in 2003-04 and 1990-91, respectively. However, it seems as though Murray’s more likely to join the latter category rather than the former.
With the flashiness of this season’s freshmen and the number of players pushing for top rookie honors, Murray probably will be overlooked. The fact of the matter is Matthews is having a rookie season the likes of which we haven’t seen since Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Alex Ovechkin came into the league. The same goes for Laine, too, who has shown every bit the goal scoring flair that was promised. Throw in Marner, Nylander, Werenski and others and you’ve got a crowded field.
It’s a shame, too. Even if Murray wouldn’t have won either award, he’d be joining some elite company such as Fuhr, Barrasso and Hextall as a finalist for both awards in the same season. In any other year, against any other rookie crop or in a season he started more games, that very well could have been a reality. Instead, he might have to settle for a spectacular season that’s just a hair short of being given the credit it deserves.