Marc-Andre Fleury (Gregory Shamus/NHLI via Getty Images)
Pittsburgh Penguins GM Jim Rutherford says he would love to keep Marc-Andre Fleury and Matt Murray together next season, but factors like expansion, the salary cap and Fleury’s willingness to share the crease could impact Rutherford’s off-season plans.
The Pittsburgh Penguins have a major off-season decision to make in goal, and it might be the best problem a team could have. Instead of the Penguins seeking a starting netminder or a goaltender to solidify their crease, Pittsburgh GM Jim Rutherford needs to figure out how his team is going to proceed with their two legitimate starting goaltenders.
Matt Murray’s post-season play, which had the rookie netminder in the conversation for the Conn Smythe Trophy, has potentially vaulted him to the top of the Penguins depth chart in goal. Murray, 22, posted solid numbers in the regular season, has blown competition away in the AHL and his post-season performance was inspiring. But veteran netminder Marc-Andre Fleury was the Penguins’ rock during the regular season and Rutherford didn’t fail to recognize that Fleury is coming off of arguably his best season as a professional.
“If it wasn’t for Fleury’s play, we probably wouldn’t be in the playoffs,” Rutherford said. “He really carried this team, especially in the first half of the season when we need to have really good goaltending. Of course, he got hurt. Matt took over, (but) Matt was going to get some games down the stretch anyway. That was always the plan.”
But what does that mean for the future of the Penguins’ crease? Well, Rutherford says he has a lot to think about, and that’s all going to start with meeting with Marc and understand how the 31-year-old feels about sharing the starting duties or being the 1B to Murray’s 1A in Pittsburgh.
“I’m not as concerned with how (Fleury’s) going to handle it, because I already saw it,” Rutherford said. “I know him very well. He is about as good a pro as you can find in any sport. And through this playoff run, it had to be very difficult for him to sit there. It’s not something he’d had to do in the past, and he handled the situation just so well. I believe, regardless how this plays out, he’ll handle it very well going forward.”
Rutherford added that it’s a fortunate situation to have two starting goaltenders and one that puts the Penguins in a great position, and Pittsburgh is also fortunate in that keeping both goaltenders wouldn’t necessarily be impossible.
Unlike most Cup-winning teams in recent history, the salary cap isn’t a huge concern for Pittsburgh. A slight increase in the cap should give Rutherford some breathing room and only a small amount of salary shedding may be needed. As it stands, the Penguins have all of the major pieces of their championship team in place for 2016-17 aside from veteran center Matt Cullen and defensemen Ben Lovejoy and Justin Schultz. The Penguins current cap hit for 2016-17 is roughly $73.9 million, per CapFriendly, which would be only slightly higher than the reported $72.8 upper limit next season.
However, this is where saying goodbye to Fleury becomes a potentially attractive option. He’s about to enter the second season of a four-year, $23-million contract, and moving him out would offer a significant amount of space for the Penguins to go out and maybe add a few pieces. Specifically, it would allow Pittsburgh to add on the blueline, which will be necessary if Lovejoy and Schultz head to free agency come July.
It doesn’t sound like parting ways with Fleury is the way the Penguins want to go, though.
“Let’s see what the expansion things are, let’s see how Marc’s feeling about this, and then I can start to figure out we’re going to go forward,” Rutherford said. “But if (Sullivan) and I had our way, and we don’t have expansion and all those things, we’d like to start the season with Marc and Murray.”