The Penguins are likely going to be without Matt Murray on Thursday when the Vegas Golden Knights come to town. Pittsburgh probably isn’t going to have their starting netminder on Saturday when they head north to play the Montreal Canadiens, either. Even next week’s tilts with the Vancouver Canucks and Toronto Maple Leafs might be in question, too.
That’s because Murray has been sidelined with a concussion, and, as one would expect, there’s no timetable for his return. Murray’s concussion, Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said following Tuesday’s skate, was suffered during Monday’s practice, and all indications at this point are that Murray will, at the very least, be missing Thursday’s game against the Golden Knights.
The concern, however, shouldn’t be that Pittsburgh will now have to suffer through a spell without the No.1 netminder in the lineup. No, in Casey DeSmith and Tristan Jarry the Penguins have two quality second-stringers who should be able to pick up the slack. DeSmith’s .921 save percentage and Jarry’s .907 SP across 21 games should give Pittsburgh more than enough faith that they’ll receive the type of goaltending necessary to win in the short term. Rather, the concern should be that this concussion not only marks their 24-year-old starter’s second in the past calendar year but his third since he broke into the NHL during the 2015-16 season.
Concussions, we know, are a tricky thing. It’s not a sprain, a fracture or a break. There are no certainties with head injuries, no ability to pinpoint how long it will take a player to recover. Even Murray’s own concussion history indicates as much. When he suffered his first concussion in mid-April 2016, he was sidelined only two games before slotting back into the lineup come the post-season and propelling the Penguins to the Stanley Cup. However, his second concussion, suffered during a practice this past February, saw him out of action for nine games. And there’s no telling exactly how long Murray could be out this time around.
That is a frightening reality, too. The Penguins can’t know quite yet, and might not know for some time, how long Murray will be sidelined. Ask the Chicago Blackhawks. When Corey Crawford was sidelined in December of last season with a head injury, the hope was that he could return at some point in the not too distant future. That turned into some point before the trade deadline, then became some point before the end of the campaign and later became legitimate concern, especially among the fan base, about whether he would return at all. Crawford’s on his way back now, of course, and he could be back in action sometime this month, but his nearly 10-month absence is a clear-cut example of the kind of havoc concussions can wreak on a player.
But what makes Murray’s concussion all the more concerning is that he has a history. Again, this is his third documented concussion, his second in the past year. And with that kind of history, the Penguins have to have a serious discussion about Murray’s future.
Primarily, that discussion has to concern Murray’s recovery. If any team is familiar with taking care of their star players, too, it should be the Penguins given Sidney Crosby had his own battle with repeated concussions that led to the superstar center playing only 63 regular season games and 20 post-season contests across the 2010-11 and 2011-12 campaigns. With Murray, Pittsburgh might be best advised to be patient, not to rush him back, to allow him to heal and keep the crease in the hands of DeSmith and Jarry for the time being. There’s absolutely nothing to be gained from rushing Murray back and, quite frankly, the Penguins should be able to remain in contention for a post-season spot in the Metropolitan Division without him.
That takes care of this current absence, though. But what about once Murray returns? What about next season, when Murray will be in the final season of his three-year, $11.25-million contract?
Truth be told, any conversation about Murray’s future should include a contingency plan. Again, not only is this is Murray’s third concussion — and that is worrying in and of itself — it’s also the seventh time since the late stages of the 2015-16 season that Murray has been put on the shelf with an injury. Not including the six games Murray missed due to the death of his father or his brief stint in the 2015-16 campaign, the Penguins netminder has missed 36 games across the past two seasons. His ailments not only include the concussions, but three separate lower-body injuries and a broken hand. He hasn’t played more than 50 games in either of the past two seasons. No team can predict when injuries are going to happen and no team wants to plan around the worst-case scenario. At some point, though, to not would be somewhat foolish, particularly with a player who has repeatedly fallen injured.
Right now, DeSmith and Jarry appear to be more of a stop gap than long-term solution. Murray’s upcoming spell on the injured list, however, could give one or the opportunity to rise to the occasion as Murray’s stand-in. Do the Penguins see either as a long-term solution if Murray should land on the shelf for more than a few weeks, though? And what about when the seemingly inevitable happens and Murray falls injured once again? Will Pittsburgh want to continue to rely on a pair of goaltenders who, at least heading into Thursday’s game against the defending Western Conference champions, have a combined 41 games NHL experience?
These are all questions the Penguins need to answer, and ones that Murray’s latest concussion might force them to sooner rather than later.