The Penguins should trade Matt Murray.
I’ll wait a minute while you scream at me at the top your lungs.
OK, hear me out.
The Penguins have a problem at goaltender. There’s only one net and they have two quality players in Murray and Marc-Andre Fleury. That’s not an ideal situation for any team, but some have made it work. The Penguins even seem as if they would be willing to try make it work.
“If it was in a perfect world and (head coach Mike Sullivan) and I were making a decision right now, we’d like to start the season with Fleury and Murray,” general manager Jim Rutherford said on Thursday.
But in this case, it’s an untenable situation. According to the Associated Press, the NHL will be expanding to Las Vegas after the 2016-17 season and the Penguins will likely only be able to protect one goaltender in the forthcoming expansion draft. The risk of losing one of them for nothing will be too great for Rutherford to stand pat. He’ll have to trade one of his two netminders by this time next year.
The common wisdom would be to trade Fleury. Fleury is a decade older and signed to a much larger contract. Plus, that’s just the way we’re comfortable with sports working. The new blood comes in and the old guard is forced to give way. But that could be complicated in this case. Starting goaltenders aren’t traded frequently to begin with, and a potential trade for Fleury would be a difficult one for the Penguins to win.
There aren’t that many teams out there that are going to be willing to pay top dollar for a No. 1 goaltender. Of the 30 NHL squads, 17 already have a goaltender on the books that will earn upwards of $5 million next season. Further complicating that is Fleury’s $5.75 million salary and cap hit, which any interested team would have to be willing and able to absorb.
Then there’s the big roadblock: Fleury has a no-trade clause that allows him to negate a move to up to 12 teams. It’s unlikely that at this point in his career, Fleury would be interested in playing for a bottom-feeder looking to get to the salary cap floor. All of that is going to conspire to make it difficult for the Penguins to find a trading partner.
It’s a similar situation to the one the Toronto Maple Leafs were in with Phil Kessel last year and the Vancouver Canucks with Roberto Luongo the year before. In both of those instances, the returns for those players were widely panned, and rightfully so, as they were extremely viable assets for the teams making the acquisitions. Kessel was the leading scorer in the playoffs for the Penguins, and Luongo recorded a .922 save percentage at age 37 this season to help the Florida Panthers to a division title.
The return for those to players combined the following year? In Vancouver, Jacob Markstrom wasn’t able to unseat a way-past-his prime Ryan Miller in goal, and Shawn Matthias had 27 points before Canucks let him walk as a free agent. Toronto’s haul for Kessel still has potential, but it isn’t off to a great start, as neither Scott Harrington nor Kasperi Kapanen were regularly able to crack the Leafs’ league-worst NHL roster.
Clearly, finding a quality return for Fleury could be challenging. But that isn’t all. Some of Murray’s supposed advantages also come with some asterisks.
He’s young, but he might be a bit too young to be handed the reigns on a full-time basis. In addition to being just 22, Murray has split time in both of his professional seasons, playing 44 regular-season games in 2015-16 and just 41 the year before. There’s no guarantee that his impressive minor-league numbers and this year’s playoff performance would be able to translate to a starter’s typical 65-game workload. If Fleury is traded, Rutherford will need to invest in a quality backup.
That, of course, would stifle some of the salary cap benefit of shipping out Fleury’s contract. But that’s a bit of a red herring, anyway. Murray does have one more season under his current deal, which will pay him only $894,000 in 2016-17. But he’ll be a restricted free agent after that, and Murray would be in line for a hefty bump in salary. Corey Crawford of the Chicago Blackhawks was in a similar position after his Stanley Cup win in 2013, and he signed a six-year, $36 million contract the following fall.
So any cap benefit the Penguins would acquire by trading Fleury would be for one year only, and a good chunk of that would be negated by acquiring a backup. Any move to trade Fleury would probably necessitate locking up Murray to a long-term contract immediately to secure the position for the future, which would be a risky proposition for a goaltender with just 13 NHL regular-season games under his belt.
It’s not impossible that Rutherford will be able to get something approaching market value for Fleury — after all, he got Trevor Daley for Rob Scuderi. But if he can’t, trading Murray should at least be considered as a viable alternative.
In the short-term, Fleury is an extremely capable NHL goaltender. Even though he’s now 31, he’s still very much in his prime. He posted a career-best .921 save percentage in 2015-16 and has been extremely consistent since the hiring of goaltending coach Mike Bales in 2013.
Murray would be a goaltending asset unlike any the open market has seen in recent memory. Corey Schneider is probably the biggest-name youngish goaltender to be traded recently and he netted a top-10 draft pick, but Murray is younger and comes with the notoriety of his Stanley Cup victory. A potential bidding war could net the Penguins multiple assets that could help now and down the line, without much (if any) of a drop-off in play in the near future.
Trading the reigning Stanley Cup championship goaltender might be anathema to most general managers, but if anyone would be willing to do it, it would be Rutherford, who watched the bloom come off Cam Ward’s rose in Carolina. Ward, much like Murray, won the Stanley Cup as a rookie, only to see he career take a long and slow downward trajectory. Signing Ward to a long-term contract turned out to be one of the biggest mistakes Rutherford made in Carolina.
From a pure asset-management standpoint, the Penguins would be selling Murray at what is likely to be the highest value of his career, while holding on to a piece in Fleury that the market is undervaluing. It’s a lesson Rutherford has seen from both sides in his experience with Ward and Kessel. What remains to be seen is which side he will choose.
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