I was pretty surprised when the 2016-17 NHL season opened up and Marc-Andre Fleury was still on the roster. It told me that GM Jim Rutherford was essentially kicking the can down the road on the pending NHL Expansion Draft for the new Las Vegas team, in favor of making another run at a Stanley Cup.
In short-term thinking, that’s exactly the right play. By bringing virtually everyone back from the Stanley Cup winning team, the Penguins are the prohibitive favorites to hoist the silver chalice in June. All of the team’s key guys are in the heart of their primes and now the Penguins have an enviable goaltending tandem in the form of Fleury and Matt Murray, who actually backstopped the team to the Cup.
But the two guys in the crease are not robots. Each of them is going to expect, for different reasons, that they should be the prime goalie for the Penguins. Matt Murray knows that he is the future of the Penguins, at least for the short and medium term, depending on how rising prospect Tristan Jarry continues to develop. Murray even has a new contract in his back pocket (3 yr/$11M) that has tied him to the franchise, although I would also contend it makes him tradeable since every trade partner now has a known fixed cost on him. On the other hand, Fleury also should feel that this is still his team. After all, he’s also won a Cup for them and he’s been the lead sled dog for well over a decade at this point.
It’s rare that pure 1-1A matchups work out. Goalies thrive on rhythm and like to see a lot of pucks to keep them in the groove. Alternating games is not optimal. At some point, no matter how good of a guy a player is purported to be, egos will eventually flare up. Even if Fleury himself may not push the issue, he has a very loyal subset of friends in that locker room (especially team captain and franchise cornerstone, Sidney Crosby) that may lobby on his behalf for more playing time. It’s the kind of thing that could, but not in this case with this group of guys, divide a locker room and damage team chemistry.
Barring an injury to one of them, this arrangement will continue for the near future. And unless there are a rash of injuries, the Penguins will remain a short-list contender for the Cup. To that end, I can’t see a midseason or trade deadline deal of Fleury to another team. Why would the Penguins get so close to the playoffs and deal away an asset that may help them in the postseason or down the stretch? Complicating things even further is that Fleury hasn’t been his usual sharp self overall this year. His .910 save percentage and 3.06 GAA would be the poorest of his career since 2009-10 (.905 save%) and 2005-06 (3.25 GAA).
So that leaves the period after the season, but before the expansion draft, which will be held on June 18th – 20th, 2017. Teams must have their players submitted to the draft pool by 5 pm (EST) on Saturday, June 17th, 2017. Only one player from each NHL team will be selected. Fleury can not be submitted to the pool due to his No Movement Clause (NMC), unless he agrees to waive it, which I would find hard to believe he would do to play for a potentially terrible team in the middle of the desert.
That leaves the following scenarios in play for the goalie situation, allowing that both will be here the whole 2016-17 season:
- Keep both goalies and get Fleury to waive his NMC to enter the Expansion Draft — This one is highly unlikely for all the reasons just stated above.
- Keep both goalies and expose Murray to the Expansion Draft — Murray would get snatched up in a heartbeat by Las Vegas. The new franchise needs to come out with 3 goalies and I’m pretty sure that a Stanley Cup-winning goalie that will be age-23 during their inaugural season making only $3.75M would be attractive to them.
- Trade Fleury after the season for a sacrificial lamb to expose in the Expansion Draft — This one is the trickiest, but it appears to be the most likely scenario at this point. The Pens would ride with Fleury this year and then move him after the conclusion of the NHL playoffs. This leaves roughly a week. The Pens would look to trade Fleury to a team that could give them a goalie back in return, yet still under control for the 2017-18 season, making him eligible for the Expansion Draft (and with no NMC of his own). The Penguins could then toss this traded-for goalie into the pool, thus allowing them to protect Murray.
By selecting that third scenario, Rutherford has put the pressure squarely on his own shoulders. Not only is he willing to jeopardize team chemistry this season, he’s also willing to put himself under the gun to make a trade for a potential sub-optimal return. He has to convince a team to take Fleury AND have it be a team that Fleury will waive his NMC for. Rutherford also has get a goalie back without an NMC of his own so that he can be exposed in the Draft. Said goalie also needs to make less than Fleury does now ($5.75M/yr cap hit), to keep the Penguins’ salary cap in order. And he has to be decent enough to be the backup to Murray next year if this goalie is not selected, or they could attempt to trade him again after the Expansion Draft, I suppose.
The choices for this type of goalie are relatively limited. Using CapFriendly’s database, the sample of goalies under control next year without NMC’s and making less than $5.75M are:
- Jaroslav Halak/NYI ($4.5M through 2017-18)
- Craig Anderson/OTT ($4.2M through 2017-18)
- Petr Mrazek/DET ($4.0M through 2017-18)
- James Reimer/FLA ($3.4M through 2020-21)
- Martin Jones/SJ ($3.0M through 2017-18)
- Eddie Lack/CAR ($2.75M through 2017-18)
I’m going to toss Reimer out of the mix, purely for the duration of that contract in case the Pens have to retain it, and say that I’d be comfortable with any of the remaining five. It would be hard to see Mrazek and Jones getting moved, due to their youth and how their teams view them in the medium term.
Jaroslav Halak would actually make a lot of sense for the Penguins, but his agent bumped his gums already that he wants the Islanders to pare down their 3 goalie mix and get his guy some time. Halak may be on the move to a team in the near future. I doubt he’s with the Islanders still in June.
Since Fleury wasn’t traded prior to the start of this season, I’m OK with keeping him the whole part of this year. It gives the Penguins a built-in backup plan as they try to repeat. But it’s going to be real hectic come June. I have a feeling that Jim Rutherford is just fine with that.