When the league announced the parameters for next June’s NHL Expansion Draft, an event that will allow the new Las Vegas expansion team to put together their roster for the 20 17–18 season, the most notable factor in protecting players was that each team coulf only hold on to one goaltender. Whether the choice is between an established starter and a young future stud or two equally good split-time keepers, it is clear that Las Vegas will have quality talent in net next season as a result of the ample possibilities to choose from in the draft. While many teams face this difficult decision, no team is in quite the same situation as the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The Penguins are fortunate enough to have two great goaltenders on their roster. Marc-Andre Fleury has been the starter for years and one of the best goalies in the NHL in the last decade. The first overall pick in 2003, Fleury took over the starter job after the 2004-05 lockout at the young age of 21. At just 24, he led the Penguins to a Stanley Cup championship in 2009 and has been cemented as the leader in net ever since. With a Goals Against Average under 2.40 in each of the last six seasons, “Flower” has established himself as one of the more consistent goalies in the league and a reliable member of a dynastic Penguins team. However, Fleury is not without fault. Although his regular season dominance has been constant, he has had his struggles in the postseason. Pittsburgh has made the playoffs ten years in a row, but in all of those years Fleury’s postseason GAA and save percentage were at or below his regular season average three times (’08, ’14, ’15). The 31-year-old also struggled with injuries, really for the first time in his career, in 2015-16. The Penguins current backup goaltender, Matt Murray, saw his chance to take over last season, earning the starting role as a rookie while Fleury was out and went on to make a dominant playoff run and lead the Penguins to yet another Stanley Cup title. His regular season and postseason numbers were spectacular, as he posted a .930 SV% and 2.00 GAA in 13 games before putting up a .923 SV% and 2.08 GAA in 21 playoff starts. The team rewarded the 22-year-old with a new three-year, $11.25MM contract extension last month, implying their commitment to the budding star. In an ideal world, the Penguins could keep both their established starter in Fleury and their starter-to-be in Murray. However the Expansion Draft has other plans.
The rules of the draft state that any player with a No-Movement Clause must be protected come June 21st. Fleury is such a player, and if he stays on the roster through the season, then the Penguins must protect him. That of course would leave Murray as the odd man out in net and an easy choice for Las Vegas. However, it seems extremely unlikely that Pittsburgh would let their young keeper go to Vegas for free. The choice the team faces is what to do about the situation, with an eye on keeping Murray at all costs.
The simplest choice for the Penguins is to trade Marc-Andre Fleury. A veteran goalkeeper with years of success would surely be coveted on the open market. However, such a trade for a starting goaltender is rare mid-season. Teams often lack the salary cap space (Fleury has a relatively affordable cap hit of $5.75 million, but many contenders are right up against the ceiling without that flexibility) or don’t feel comfortable bringing in a new starter late in the year. Interested contenders may also be wary of bringing in a player with a history of playoffs struggles who has two years left on his contract and is on the wrong side of 30. The veteran may simply be untradeable this year. And even if the Penguins could trade Fleury without any problems, would they? Murray has yet to make a start this season due to injury, which forced the Penguins to claim Mike Condon off of waivers for the time being to avoid throwing young Tristan Jarry into the fire. Condon is likely to be put back on waivers – and subsequently claimed – shortly, since Murray was activated from the injured reserve on Tuesday. Thus, if the Penguins traded Fleury in-season, they would be left with the 22-year-old Murray and 21-year-old Jarry as their goalie depth, unless someone could be brought in via trade or waivers or they feel former Boston University standout Sean Maguire is ready for the NHL by then. None of those options are optimal for Pittsburgh.
The other option, is to try to swing a deal with Las Vegas that stops them from selecting Matt Murray in the expansion draft. In the past teams have often negotiated deals prior to the selection process to protect players that otherwise would have been left unprotected. San Jose swung deals with both Columbus and Minnesota before the 2000 Expansion Draft in exchange for not taking Evgeni Nabokov, while Buffalo paid Columbus not to pick Dominik Hasek or Martin Biron. However, those trades requires somewhat reasonable returns. The problem with this plan for Pittsburgh is whether or not any package could truly convince Las Vegas not to select Murray. A young goalie who has proven that he is competent in the playoffs and has produced good numbers (at least so far) in the regular season is invaluable in the NHL. An expansion team looking to start from scratch would love to have a young franchise goalie, and Murray fits the bill. Pittsburgh would be hard-pressed to put together a package that would be enough for Las Vegas GM George McPhee to pass on Murray. Whether they want to keep Fleury and Murray or not, it may be difficult for the Penguins to protect both.
The final option for the Jim Rutherford and the Penguins, if they cannot move Fleury or make a deal with Las Vegas, would be to give up on Murray. While this seems unlikely, the Penguins would rather trade away the young star for a decent return than let the Knights take him away for free. Several teams will be looking for goal tending going into 2017-18, and almost anyone would have an interest in Murray. Should the young keeper struggle at all this season, Pittsburgh may decide to sell high and many organizations would be more than willing to give up players and picks for Murray, especially if they are only a goalie away from being a Stanley Cup contender. The Penguins would obviously prefer to keep Murray, but they may be forced into this situation if Fleury proves to truly be untradable.
Obviously, none of these options are ideal. Unfortunately for the reigning Stanley Cup champs, they will have to make one of them work. An Expansion Draft is difficult on all teams, but it’s in an effort (more so this time than ever before) to build an expansion franchise that is competitive from go. There are many rules meant to limit the exposure and potential loss to any one team, but they are not fool-proof. Pittsburgh will fall victim to the 2017 Expansion Draft, and one way or another fans should be ready for a loss in the not-too-distant future. This will continue to be one of the more fascinating story lines throughout the NHL season and right up until the Expansion Draft next June.