Sunday, May 07, 2017

Poached from Pittsburgh: Why it's Sensible for the Flames to Steal a Starter from Steel City

Will Calgary's next starting goaltender have a Stanley Cup ring on his catching hand?

Whether it's Marc-Andre Fleury, getting it done right now, or Matt Murray, who got it done last year, the situation in Pittsburgh is one to keep a close eye on.

With the looming expansion draft leaving the Penguins in a bit of a pickle, there are several reasons why it makes sense for Flames GM Brad Treliving to have Pittsburgh GM Jim Rutherford on speed dial, and vice versa.

Calgary Seeking Stability

For eight-plus seasons, Calgary enjoyed the luxury of rolling out Miikka Kiprusoff between the pipes nearly every night.

From when the Finn arrived in a gift basket from San Jose in November 2003, through when he retired in 2013, Kiprusoff won a franchise-record 305 games. No other goalie wearing the Flaming 'C' during that time won more than eight.

The four years since have been the complete opposite. A carousel of no less than seven goaltenders have been given the opportunity at some point to be the No. 1: Joey MacDonald, Karri Ramo, Reto Berra, Joni Ortio, Jonas Hiller, Brian Elliott and Chad Johnson.

In the second half last season, it looked like Treliving had finally found his guy. From Jan. 26 through the end of March, Elliott was excellent. He went 18-3-1, won 11 games in a row in one stretch, and of the goalies to start at least 10 games over that span, his .930 save percentage ranked fourth behind Sergei Bobrovsky (.941), Jake Allen (.939) and Jonathan Bernier (.932). It felt like a contract extension was an inevitability.

However, you have to wonder where the GM's head is at now in regards to the 32-year-old pending UFA after his scarring playoff meltdown on home ice. Four goals against in a span of less than 23 minutes as Calgary blew a 4-1 late second period lead in game 3. In game 4 after Gulutzan mulled over from a long time who he should start (showing where his confidence level was at), Elliott was promptly pulled just 5:38 in after one goal. Patrick Eaves’ harmless-looking wrister from a sharp angle leaked between his pads.

A valid concern with Elliott is he has never proven he can shoulder the workload of being a No. 1. Last year in starting 45 times, he had a great middle part but a bad start and a bad finish. Seven years ago when he started 51 games between the Senators and Avalanche is the only time he's started more than 50 times in a season and his combined save percentage that year was a lowly .893. In contrast, Fleury has made 55-or-more starts in a season seven times.

Why Pittsburgh is the Best Trade Partner for Calgary

The Vegas expansion draft is coming up June 18-20 with the Golden Knights roster to be unveiled on June 21. It's no secret that this unique twist to this off-season has the Penguins in a bind between the pipes. They have two legitimate starting goaltenders and can only protect one of them.

Both have taken a turn backstopping Pittsburgh to a Stanley Cup -- Fleury in 2009, Murray in 2016 -- and Fleury has been stellar again this post-season as he has the Penguins one win away from the Eastern Conference final.

Unless Rutherford does something before the 3 pm MT deadline on June 17 at which time NHL clubs must submit their protected lists, the probability is high that Vegas will poach whichever goaltender the Penguins leave exposed.

This isn't an absolute, of course. Pittsburgh could make a side deal with Vegas for them to agree to not take Murray. But that could cost a significant asset or assets and then you’re still left with two No. 1 goalies that starting next year carry a combined $9.5M cap hit. You could live with that cost given the importance of the position but on a roster that will have other needs to address, it’s not ideal. Plus, good luck keeping them both happy in a continued time-share. Both should be starters in this league and it's come time for one of them to move on so that can happen.

All teams will lose a player to Vegas for nothing, that's how the process works. But it’s the high caliber of these two particular players, whether it be Fleury or Murray, that should have Rutherford leaning towards trading one of them instead, in order to get something in return.

Enter Calgary, which is in the opposite situation. Instead of two goalies to protect and only one spot, the Flames have zero goalies to protect for their one spot.

Why Calgary is the Best Trade Partner for Pittsburgh

While there are a few teams around the league that may be in the mix for a goalie, there are not as many potential landing spots as you think as most already have a goalie that they would protect. This is especially the case with Fleury.

Plus, some of the potential destinations come with some baggage that would make them less attractive as a trade partner, compared to Calgary.
  • Dallas – The Stars already have Kari Lehtonen ($5.9M) and Antti Niemi ($4.5M) on the payroll. Unless they’re able to coax Vegas into throwing them a lifeline with one of them, you’d think the only way they add Fleury is by moving one of those two contracts the other direction. If you’re the Penguins, that sounds like a deal killer.
  • Arizona - Similar scenario as above. The Coyotes already have Mike Smith ($5.7M for two more years) so adding Fleury when you've already got a young goalie in Louis Domingue in the fold also, that makes no sense either unless you move Smith to the Penguins. Again, why would that interest Pittsburgh.
  • Philadelphia – With Steve Mason a pending UFA, Michal Neuvirth is probably the guy at this point they would protect. That means they'd gladly add and protect Fleury instead. But does Rutherford want to trade Fleury within his division? Highly unlikely. In my research, only once in the last 25 years have the Penguins traded a roster player to the state-rival Flyers and it was far from a blockbuster. On March 17, 2002, in a swap of fourth liners at the trade deadline, Pittsburgh GM Craig Patrick shipped Billy Tibbetts to Philadelphia in exchange for Kent Manderville.
  • Winnipeg - While the Jets may be looking for a starter, I doubt they're prepared to give up on 23-year-old Connor Hellebuyck just yet. Bring in Fleury and protect him and then you're exposing Hellebuyck. Thus, the Jets are presumably not in the running for a Penguins goalie as their shopping window won’t open until after the expansion draft. 
  • Carolina – A week ago, they would have been on this list. But then they went and acquired from the Chicago Blackhawks the rights to pending UFA Scott Darling. Having agreed on Friday to a four-year/$16.6 million deal, he's their protected goalie and new No. 1.

One thing to remember with Fleury is he’s in the power position given he has a no-movement clause. Expansion draft rules state that any player with a NMC must be protected unless that player chooses to waive it.

Additionally, should he consent to a trade, Cap Friendly reports that he has a modified no-trade clause in which he can pick 18 destinations that are preferred and Pittsburgh is limited to making a deal with one of those teams.

Would the 12-year NHL veteran be willing to be dealt to the rebuilding Arizona Coyotes? I'm not so sure about that. But from what I've heard, Calgary is one of the teams on that list.

Some have wondered if maybe Fleury won't waive his NMC for family reasons, to avoid uprooting his wife and kids and moving to a new city. But a consideration there is his two daughters are both under the age of five so it's not like he'd have to pull them out of school. This could actually be a great time to return to Canada. Calgary is surely an attractive destination with the strides the team took in year 1 under coach Glen Gulutzan and with the young pieces in place moving forward.

If it's Murray that's moved, Calgary could still be one of the more viable teams to trade with as the Flames could dangle an expansion draft-exempt top goalie prospect as part of the package.

Calgary had three goalie prospects playing in the minors last season in Jon Gillies, David Rittich and Mason McDonald. They also want to create room for Tyler Parsons to turn pro this fall. If Pittsburgh parts with Murray, Calgary could offer up Gillies or Rittich. Heck, Sidney Crosby knows McDonald from having played together back in Nova Scotia the last few summers, although that's probably a stretch. It would take more than that, maybe another prospect and/or the Flames first round pick coming up, but that could be a piece.

Why Pittsburgh Might Part With Fleury

What makes Fleury expendable is they have Murray.

Despite Fleury's terrific spring, keeping a 22-year-old over a 32-year-old makes the most sense for obvious reasons. Add in the fact that entering the playoffs, Murray had supplanted Fleury as the starter. If not for his lower-body injury in the warm-up to game 1 versus Columbus, we may not have seen Fleury yet this spring.

There's also a financial incentive. Murray carries a cap hit of just $3.75 million for the next three seasons. When you’ve got the foursome of Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel and Kris Letang tying up over $32 million of your cap space for the next five seasons, every dollar saved elsewhere is crucial in helping fill out the rest of the roster.

If you were to replace Fleury with a back-up at $1.5 million, you’ve cleared enough cap space at $4.25 million to go shopping on July 1 and bring in a quality player to play in your top nine. Michael Frolik, for example, was signed two years ago by the Flames to a deal averaging $4.3 million.

Why Fleury Makes Sense for Calgary

If you’ve been following the playoffs at all, I’m sure at least a few Flames fans (never mind ownership and the many other front office stakeholders) have wondered what might have been had Calgary received the kind of goaltending Fleury has given Pittsburgh, especially against a Capitals team that has held the edge in territorial play yet trails the series 3-2.

The groaners, the dribblers, the back breakers, those ugly goals that Flames fans know all too well haven’t been there. It’s been night after night of sterling efforts with numerous acrobatic stops mixed in along the way.

In pushing Alex Ovechkin and the NHL's No. 1 regular season team in the Washington Capitals to the brink of elimination, Fleury has been Pittsburgh’s best player.

Thrust into the starter's job when Murray got injured in the warm-up prior to game 1 of the Penguins first round series with Columbus, he has been really good.

If Calgary got this caliber of goaltending three weeks ago, we would be five games into a Battle of Alberta right now.

With two years left on a deal that pays him $5.75 million annually, that is ideal term for manageable dollars. Would you rather pay $4.2 million like the Oilers are for Cam Talbot? Sure. But there are also 13 goalies that make more than Fleury so in a summer where Dennis Wideman's $5.25 million is coming off the books, it's not money that would cripple the team.

More attractive is it's a short-term commitment. As the GM, you're hoping two years is long enough to bridge you to when you hope one of Gillies, Rittich or Parsons are ready to inherit the starting job.

For those nervous about his age, Martin Brodeur played until he was 42, Luongo is 38, Ryan Miller turns 37 in July, Kiprusoff retired at 36. Fleury is older but 32 in goalie years is nothing. There are a dozen starting goalies in the league that are older than him. While his play will eventually drop off, nothing in this year’s playoff performance suggests he doesn’t have at least two more solid years left in the tank.

What his age does do is bring the acquisition cost down considerably, compared to a stud young prospect like Murray.

What Calgary Would Be Getting in Fleury

In his dozen seasons in the NHL, there have been highs and lows but while he may been used more as a back-up goalie in Pittsburgh lately, that's more a testament to how good Murray has been more so than a knock on Fleury.

Over the last seven years, Fleury has a .917 save percentage in the regular season. Among active goalies (minimum of 65 starts), that's not that far behind the leader Carey Price (.923). A few others of note include Braden Holtby (.922), Henrik Lundqvist (.921), Sergei Bobrovsky (.920), Ben Bishop (.919), Pekka Rinne (.918), Jonathan Quick (.918), Corey Crawford (.918), Martin Jones (.916), Ryan Miller (.915), Brian Elliott (.915) and Mike Smith (.915).

Playoffs have been a different beast. After reaching the Stanley Cup final in back-to-back seasons at age 23 and 24 -- winning it in his second attempt -- Fleury's post-season struggles the next four seasons were well documented. As the Penguins went through a period in which they annually crumpled in the post-season after routinely winning their division in the regular season.

Lately, however, it appears the spring jitters are no longer a thing. Going back to 2013-14, Fleury's playoff save percentage over the last four post-seasons is .921 in 29 starts. It's not Holtby (.935) numbers, but it's not all that far behind Bishop (.927), who is second on that list, and he's ahead of a bunch of familiar names.

NHL - Playoff SV% since 2013-14 (min of 20 starts)

1. Braden Holtby, 35 starts, .934
2. Ben Bishop, 36 starts, .927
3. Martin Jones, 30 starts, .925
4. Henrik Lundqvist, 59 starts, .924
5. Matt Murray, 21 starts, .923
6. Carey Price, 30 starts, .922
7. Marc-Andre Fleury, 29 starts, .921
8. Pekka Rinne, 29 starts, .920
9. Frederik Andersen, 34 starts, .915
10. Corey Crawford, 49 starts, .915
11. Brian Elliott, 22 starts, .914
12. Jonathan Quick, 31 starts, . 907
13. Devan Dubnyk, 21 starts, .903

Salary-wise, there will be cheaper options out there for the Flames. Of the back-ups coming off good seasons, 27-year-old Antti Raanta (.922 SV%) in New York is one example. Philipp Grubauer (.926 SV%), 25, is another in Washington.

But neither has been a No. 1 (Raanta's career high is 26 starts, Grubauer's is 19 starts), both have enjoyed the benefit of playing behind very good teams, and they barely have any playoff experience (one start between them, belonging to Grubauer). Chasing the next Cam Talbot or Martin Jones has it's perils. You might end up instead with Eddie Lack.

Also, an intangible you get with Fleury is an older guy, who would be an ideal mentor for the young goalies in the organization. Just look at how Murray has developed in the company of a guy 10 years older than him, who had to deal with the pressure of being the NHL's first overall pick in 2003.

Why Pittsburgh Might Part with Murray

What makes Murray expendable is they have Fleury.

There are decent quality back-up goalies that can be brought in for cheap to tandem with Fleury and that gets you through the next couple years.

By then, the Penguins hope one of their young goalies are ready. That could be someone not currently with the organization, who comes over in a deal for Murray. Or, it could be Tristan Jarry, the 22-year-old currently backing up Fleury while Murray is sidelined.

Of the goalie prospects in the Penguins organization today, Jarry is the natural replacement for Murray as the starter in waiting. Selected from the Edmonton Oil Kings by the Penguins in the second round pick in 2013, Jarry’s development is coming along nicely.

After posting a .905 save percentage in the AHL in his rookie season last year, this year with Wilkies-Barre/Scranton, he put up a .925 save percentage, which was near the top of the league. He and goaltender partner Casey DeSmith won the Harry 'Hap' Holmes Award for having the AHL’s lowest goals-against average.

Further out, the Penguins also have another goaltending prospect they’re excited about in Filip Gustavsson. The third goaltender off the board in the 2016 NHL Draft, going 55th overall, right after the Flames selected Parsons, Gustavsson spent last year in the Swedish Hockey League.

If Jarry (or any other prospect) isn’t ready in two years, the option of extending Fleury is always possible too.

The other factor that might Be a consideration from the Penguins perspective is Murray's injury history. Four different injuries in the last 13 months have sidelined him for at least a week:
  • Apr. 12 - Current - Missed 3.5 weeks and counting (lower body)
  • Dec. 29 - Jan. 10, 2017 - Missed 2 weeks  (lower body)
  • Sept 19 - Nov. 1, 2016 - Missed 6 weeks (broken hand)
  • Apr. 10 - Apr. 18, 2016 - Missed 1 week (concussion)

Is Pittsburgh concerned that in opting for Murray, he may not be able to stay healthy.

Why Murray Makes Sense for Calgary

June will mark the 38th entry draft for the Flames since the franchise relocated to Calgary. In that span of close to four decades, Mike Vernon, Trevor Kidd and Curtis McElhinney remain the only three real success stories when it comes to drafted and developed goalies by this organization. That’s not saying much while at the same time saying a lot.

It means, never, never, NEVER bank on that top goaltending prospect panning out. Hope he does, do everything in your power to set him up for success, but we're well past the point where you can build your team on that assumption.

Murray’s sample size isn’t large. Because he could have easily won the Conn Smythe last year, people forget he just completed his rookie season. But there’s a heck of a lot more ‘for sure’ with Murray than what you have with any of the Flames up-and-coming but still unproven kids.

If you can bring in Murray without surrendering a core piece off your current roster, you have solved your goaltending woes not just for the short-term, but also for the long-term.

If in three years time, Parsons is ready to be a No. 1 in the NHL and the Flames are stuck with two top young goaltenders and not enough playing time for either one, those 'problems' are the kind of things that are welcomed by any GM.

Murray also comes with a real attractive salary. A three-year extension signed last October will see him earn $3.375 million annually beginning in 2017-18. Pair him with an economical back-up like a Chad Johnson and you're laughing. Plus, upon the expiration of that contract, he is still a restricted free agent and still under team control.

What Calgary Would be Getting in Murray

The Flames get a guy that immediately becomes the No. 1, no question.

Murray’s .923 save percentage in the playoffs last year in reeling off 15 wins also provides some reassurance that he’ll be able to handle the pressure at that time of year and will thrive rather than wilt when the magnitude of the games increases.

Turning 23 late this month, Calgary would be adding a guy that becomes part of the young core of this team moving forward that Treliving will continue to build around.  Johnny Gaudreau is 23, Sean Monahan is 22, Sam Bennett will turn 21 in June, Matthew Tkachuk is 19. Dougie Hamilton is 23. Man, there’s a lot of talent in that group. Add a goalie to that mix and you have a real strong foundation.

Last season, Murray went 32-10-4 with a .923 save percentage. The season prior when he made his NHL debut late in the year, he went 9-2-1 with a .930 save percentage. Albeit in a smaller number of games than others, combine those two years and he’s right there among the NHL’s elite.

NHL - Regular Season SV%, last two seasons combined (min of 25 starts):

1. Carey Price MTL, 74 starts,  .925
2. Matt Murray PIT, 60 starts, .925
3. Braden Holtby WSH, 129 starts, .923
4. Sergei Bobrovsky CBJ, 100 starts,  .923
5. John Gibson ANA, 87 starts, .923

Final Word

No matter who the Flames bring in next to play goal, there are no guarantees that next season, or next post-season in particular, things will turn out any different than this year.

We're talking about goaltenders. They're unpredictable, susceptible to a good year followed by a bad year followed by a good year. A high level of angst will always exist.

There are very few goalies that have been consistently good year after year after year. Carey Price? Henrik Lundqvist? Braden Holtby? And even the latter has shown a few cracks this post-season.

Realizing this, your priority if you're Treliving should be prying away a proven youngster like Murray, or bring in someone on a shorter term like Fleury. If the latter, then you hope one of your goaltending prospects develops into an NHL goalie and is ready to step in after that.
  • By the summer of 2019 when Fleury would become a UFA, Gillies will be 25 and will have three full years of pro hockey experience under his belt. Historically, that's been the average incubation period for an NCAA goalie, if they're going to make it.
  • By that point, Rittich will be turning 27. Heck, the young Czech might have already inherited the back-up job by then and be looking to graduate to No. 1.
  • As for Parsons, who I consider the best prospect of the three, he would be 21 and have two years of pro hockey experience under his belt (assuming he turns pro next September.) Could the highly touted second rounder be ready by then? Why not. Murray was a third round pick out of the OHL and he only needed two seasons in the AHL before ascending to the Pittsburgh roster.

The best get for Treliving, for sure, would be Murray. No disrespect to Fleury but Murray's age, resume, potential and contract situation is alluring. In that vein, one wonders if with every passing Penguins victory and masterful performance by Fleury this spring, that Murray inches closer to being the one that ends up being moved within the next six weeks.

"It’s the Penguins that have the shot clock counting down on them.There's a limited number of teams in the mix for a goalie and also with the space to protect one."

One also wonders how much Murray's fragility with those four injuries since last April might impact his value and what Pittsburgh could command in a trade.

The other thing to remember is in dealing with Pittsburgh, the Flames are in the position of power. If the cost for either goaltender is too high (e.g. If Sam Bennett requested in the package for Murray), they can simply walk away and pursue other options -- Bishop, Raanta, Mike Smith, Miller, bringing back Elliott. Calgary need not pay a king's ransom, especially for Fleury.

It’s the Penguins that have the shot clock counting down on them.There's a limited number of teams in the mix for a goalie who also have the space to protect one in the expansion draft. Rutherford may end up having to settle for the best offer.

Thank you Vegas for entering our lives and making this off-season such an interesting one.

By the way, have you liked Flames From 80 Feet on Facebook yet? Do so now! It's another way to be alerted to new Calgary stories I've written, other articles from my colleagues I enjoyed and I'll also sometimes use that space to weigh in on the news of the day.


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  1. Another excellent article, as always.

    Quick typo (since):
    "...for the Flames sine the franchise..."

    The expansion draft provides a unique opportunity for the Flames to augment their core roster with a goaltender that fits with their long term vision. Fleury would certainly be an immediate upgrade and bridge solution while Murray would (ideally) solidify the crease for a decade or more.

    Goaltending woes can hold an organization back and end their seasons early when they deserved better. Growing up in the Ottawa valley through the Alfredsson era, it always felt that they were a goaltender away from legitimate cup contention. For Calgary, in an offseason where Murray would be expensive in a trade, Raanta/Grubauer are unproven and have risk, and Fleury/Bishop have higher salary impacts/age/injury concerns, there's no clear cut "best" option. The only option that's off the table is the status quo. We will see a new man in the net for Calgary on opening night, and it'll make for another interesting offseason for our up-and-coming team.

    PS, do you feel Calvin Pickard should be on the list with Raanta and Grubauer? He started 50 games for a mediocre Colorado team last season. Cheers!

    1. Thanks for the note, my editor (same guy as the writer) sucks sometimes. You're right in that change is expected and all solutions have some warts so it will be curious to see how it plays out. More sellers than buyers though so that should well for Calgary. I think Pickard is also a guy similar to the others where I wouldn't have the guts to give him the keys to the No. 1 job but with the right pairing, maybe he can play 40 games instead of 25 and show you he does have the make-up to be a No. 1.

  2. No offense but you are on drugs if you think the Penguins will part with Murray. Actually, if they do trade Murray to Calgary, then you should be very, very wary because they've picked up on something they really, really don't like. Fleury, on the other hand, is a real possibility.

    1. Fleury could take the decision out of their hands. He is the guy with the no-move clause, after all. Hey, I wouldn't call it likely. In fact, I'd call it very unlikely that Murray is dealt and the last couple games since I wrote this haven't exactly elevated Fleury's stock. But Cory Schneider was traded as he was on the cusp of breaking out, the possibility exists and that's good enough to conjure up some light summer reading.