Matt Murray Heads Back to Wilkes-Barre
The Pittsburgh Penguins have both a strong starting netminder in Marc-Andre Fleury and a top goaltending prospect in Matt Murray, something few teams around the NHL can boast.
Murray got his shot to appear in the Pittsburgh lineup during December, while Fleury sat out with a concussion. He played above and beyond the level that most call-up prospects are able to, looking NHL-ready in everything from his reads to his recoveries over a four game sample size last month.
With Fleury back, though, Murray is headed back to the AHL – and that’s a good thing, but it’s also a storyline worth keeping tabs on.
Penguins remove Fleury from IR and send Murray to Wilkes-Barre. Fleury has missed eight games with a concussion.
— Dave Molinari (@MolinariPG) January 2, 2016
Drafted 83rd overall by Pittsburgh in 2012, Murray joined Wilkes-Barre last season following his tenure as the Soo Greyhounds starting goaltender. His unadjusted numbers over three of his four years in the Soo were somewhat lackluster, but that final year saw him looking absolutely lethal – and that’s where he’s been ever since. Using the theory that junior numbers are poor qualifiers of talent for netminders, there’s every reason to believe that the Penguins grabbed something great.
Through 17 AHL games this season, Murray boasted a .938 SV% in all situations; he then matched that in four games for Pittsburgh, proving through the end of 2015 that a .941 SV% in his 2014-15 campaign with Wilkes-Barre most likely wasn’t a fluke.
Murray certainly suggested with his play that he’s ready for full-time work at the NHL level. That much is apparent, both looking at his raw numbers and considering his playing style from an eye test perspective. That makes this season such an intriguing one for Pittsburgh, though; the club had excellent numbers from Fleury prior to his concussion (despite the team’s less-than-perfect record), and now they’ve got great numbers from Murray, as well.
Fans that have been dazzled by Murray through his brief call-up may be unhappy that he’s back in the AHL. After all, the thought of a top-level prospect like Murray standing behind Fleury instead of a replacement level backup like Zatkoff can seem tempting. Still, sending Murray back to Wilkes-Barre is about the best situation the goaltender can be in right now, particularly while Fleury regains control of his net.
Pittsburgh hasn’t ever really treated Fleury as a 1A/1B netminder, giving him the lion’s share of starts each year through the regular season. That would leave Murray sitting on the bench behind him, missing out on starts that he could easily be receiving at the AHL level instead.
The assumption at this point is that Murray is an NHL goaltender, potentially even an NHL starter. It’s too early to tell how a heavier share of NHL starts would affect him, but everything that’s already been presented as evidence suggests that there’s a strong future ahead for Pittsburgh’s top prospect. Predicting goaltender projections is a sensitive endeavor, but sometimes it’s easier to be confident about these predictions.
That doesn’t mean that we’ll see Murray immediately make the jump to the NHL, though, and we shouldn’t.
The best possible situation for Murray at this point is to see him remain mobile, giving him NHL starts if Fleury is hurt and leaving him in the minors to see the ice when Fleury is healthy. The more exposure a young goaltender gets to different types of situations, the better his overall game will be; sitting backup may give Murray a nice handful of NHL starts and time to watch the game from ice level, but it won’t do nearly as much for him as extended time in the minors will.
The play of Tristan Jarry through the first half of the 2015-16 season suggests that there could need to be some movement in the next two years, of course. Jarry’s nine-game sample size with Wilkes-Barre through December gave the 20 year old ex-Oil Kings prospect a .940 SV% in all situations; if he and Murray both continue to post strong AHL numbers, the Penguins will need to make a decision regarding where they’ll play in the coming years.
For now, though, Murray is back in the AHL, and it’s right where he should be.