Murray or Jarry? For the Penguins, There Might Be No Good Option
An Analytical Deep Dive into the Penguins' Goalie Dilemma
The Penguins have a goaltending dilemma for the second time in three years, and this time it’s a lot more complicated. Sure, Fleury was beloved by the fans, but there was never any realistic chance that the Penguins were going to choose him over the 23 year old starter with two cup rings by the end of his rookie season. Things are a lot different now. Murray has been incredibly inconsistent since signing a three-year bridge contract at the end of the 2016-17 season, and saw his crease stolen away from all star Tristan Jarry for a large chunk of the 19-20 season.
With both goalies as RFAs this summer and a flat cap looming, it seems as though the Pens will have to make a decision: do they stay loyal to Murray, or do they take a chance on Jarry?
Goaltending is a crapshoot. There’s no way around it; you just can’t rely on a goalie to keep up their play from season-to-season, let alone game-to-game. The league’s worst goalies are bad every year, but even all of the best ones have down seasons pretty regularly. This is why teams have to be extremely careful when deciding whether to sign or extend so-called “star goalies.” As the chart below shows, there is no correlation between the amount of money you pay your starter and the quality of goaltending you’re going to get from them. That’s why it’s become an analytics golden rule: don’t. pay. your. starter. a. lot. of. money.
The good news for the Penguins is that they are not in a place where they’ll be expected to shell out top dollar (presumably), a mistake they might have made if Murray had been very successful this season. The bad news is that even the “right decision” might go sidewise fast, and possibly close their Cup window for good.
I’m going to take a deep look at both Murray and Jarry, focusing on relevant analytics. I won’t be using save percentage or goals against average or wins or shut-outs, in part because I’m a smarty pants but also because the Penguins’ team defence is extremely variable (depending how high Jack Johnson is in the lineup) so I prefer numbers that account for that.
Note: Stats come from Evolving-Hockey.com. Goals Saved Above Expected (a stat which calculates how many goals a goalie has prevented compared to how many they’d have been expected to based on the quantity and quality of shots they face) is available for free, while Goals Above Replacement (a stat that condenses goalie performance into a single number) is available to their Patreon subscribers.
There’s no doubt about what Murray can be. We saw it in the 2015-16 playoffs, and especially in 2016-17. We even got a glimpse of it in the second half last season. At his best, he’s a confident and calm goaltender who can bounce back from a bad goal like it was nothing and keep his team in tight games. He was a top five starter in 2017, barely out of the top ten last season, and has never been worse than average in the playoffs.
The problem is that with Murray there’s very little middle-ground: either he’s good or he’s terrible. In two of his four seasons as the Penguins’ starting goalie he’s been a bottom five starter in the league, unacceptable considering the team’s Cup aspirations. This year, only Martin Jones was worse. This chart, which shows where Murray ranks among his fellow starters in terms of goals saved above expectation rate, illustrates that duality clearly.
This lack of consistency is also clear on his three-year weighted player card. Murray was undeniably great in 18-19, outperforming his expected numbers based on the quality and quantity of chances the Penguins’ defence allowed with him in net. But his year he was worse than ever, only outperforming expectations 43% of the time. He struggled with low and medium-danger chances especially, those backbreaking goals that tend to stick in the minds of Pens fans.
Finally, let’s focus in on his performance this year.
The only value that Matt Murray provided to the Penguins this year came on the penalty kill. Out of 69 goalies who played more than 300 minutes, Murray ranked between 60th and 66th in every even strength analytic, from goals saved above expected to goals above replacement to save percentage above expected. He was much better shorthanded, but he would’ve had to be the second coming of Hasek on the PK to make up for his 5v5 work. It’s telling to break down his performance by month. The vast majority of Murray’s struggles came in one month; only Carey Price and Jonathan Quick had a worse month than Murray’s November. He continued to play poorly in a backup role in December once Jarry had rightfully taken the crease. After that he had a strong January, an average February, and a short but sour March.
Verdict: The argument for Matt Murray is what we know he can be. He can be a top five goalie, a playoff star, and a capable piece of a contending team. If the Penguins give him up, he has the ceiling to really make them look bad for it in the future. But there's also no doubt that when he's off, he's really really bad. There is maybe no more inconsistent goalie in the NHL, and given the Pens' limited window he's a gamble that could squander their last remaining chances at another championship. He has the cup rings to demand a decent amount of money - in the 5-6 million range realistically - which could put the Penguins in the same situation the Sharks are with Martin Jones.
This was Tristan Jarry's second season playing consistently for the Penguins, and he made a big impression. He was named to the all star game and was even getting some Vezina chatter around the halfway mark. To many fans, the emergence of Jarry in December is fresh on their minds, confirming that he is the better option. But while Murray is the devil we know (and, half the time, the angel we know), Jarry is the devil we don't. We’ve seen 62 games of him, zero in the playoffs. And what we have seen is mixed.
We have two samples of Jarry; one as a backup in 17-18, and the other of course being this season. In 26 games as a 23-year old he was abysmal; in 33 games as a 25 year old as a 1B he was above-average. We shouldn’t read too much into the former performance, but it also should serve as an emphasis on just how limited our sample of him as a goalie is, and possibly warn us that we might be making a hasty decision too quickly.
As with Murray, we need to look more deeply at Jarry’s 2019-20 performance, especially considering it’s all we really have to go off of.
Jarry is clearly in the top half of NHL goalies at even strength; 24th in GSAx rate and save percentage above expected, 21st in goals above replacement per 60 minutes, and within the top twenty in terms of quality starts. Not so good on the penalty kill, unlike Murray. Comparing him to starting goalies, if he kept up these numbers in a full season he would rank around 20th - respectable, but not exceptional by any means. The most revealing chart on this card, in my opinion, is the monthly breakdown. When a lot of Pens fans talk about Jarry with hearts in their eyes, it’s because of that December. He was dominant, jetting near the top of the NHL’s GSAx rankings, making a Vezina case, and earning a trip to the all star game. But things fell apart for him after that, and from January 1st until the hiatus, his six goals allowed above expected ranked 67th in the NHL.
Accounting for games played (he was only really the starter in December and January), his timeline looks similar. He had three average months, one excellent month, and one bad month. (He also played one very very bad game in March which freaks the chart out).
What this all means is that when we talk about a limited sample for Tristan Jarry we shouldn’t mean “one great season.” We should mean “one excellent month.” That that month created a lot of buzz and an all star nod doesn’t change that.
Verdict: The argument for Jarry is that he was better than Murray overall this season (which is indisputable) and that he’ll likely be cheaper due to his lack of pedigree and experience. Even if Jarry doesn’t have an elite ceiling, if the Penguins make Murray their franchise goalie and he doesn’t get it back together they could look silly having passed up a cheaper and better option. The problem is that Jarry is such an unknown - we’ve seen one short excellent stretch of play from him, but we’ve also seen an immediate regression back down to earth. We know that Murray can deliver in the playoffs and has been a top-five goalie before in the regular and post-seasons. We just don’t know that about Jarry.
Murray vs. Jarry
So what the hell do the Penguins do? It seems unlikely that they would be able to bridge both players and kick the can down the road; one of them is likely on his way out. It’s a tough choice, and it is very easy to envision the Penguins coming out looking bad either way. The silver lining is that the Penguins do not have to make the mistake the Lightning or Canadiens made because neither of these goalies is considered “elite” - they will likely run a goalie tandem costing between $5-7 million dollars next season, which is extremely reasonable. But this is a choice between an inconsistent player with a high ceiling who was one of the league’s worst starters this year and a player who’s played 62 career games and had one great month. The former can slap two Cup rings on the negotiating table, while the latter has an all-star selection and an Elvis Merzlikins comparable to hang his mask on.
For me, it comes down to term and cap. Neither goalie is in the position to demand a lot of term, and the Penguins should not give into the temptation to “lock in” their goaltending long term. Neither of these guys is remotely reliable enough for that to be a good idea. Murray will likely ask for more money, and if the gap between what he and Jarry are willing to take is more than $1.5 million I think you have to take your chances with Jarry. Better to look bad as Murray succeeds somewhere else with an extra few millions of cap space in your pocket and DeSmith as insurance than to end up with an albatross in net who you feel obligated to play for 60 games a year.
There are no good options for the Penguins this summer. As it so often goes with goaltending, if they make a smart decision they’ll need some luck - if they make a bad decision, it could be real bad.