On Sunday night, the Colorado Avalanche capped off the 2021-22’ season. The season got a late start and saw a few teams, including the Penguins, have a COVID-19 scare right around Christmas time, causing a few postponements. Eventually, all regular season games were played for every team.
Now, the offseason can officially begin for everyone. The Penguins have plenty of decisions to make. Two of their three current franchise icons are pending unrestricted free agents. They’ve got some other holes to fill throughout their team.
A backup goaltender isn’t chief among their current problems, but what they do this summer could have a profound effect on the future of that position if it isn’t handled correctly.
Current starter Tristan Jarry heads into 2022-23’ with only one season left on his contract. He’ll make $3.5 million in the final year of the deal. That’s low for a two-time all-star goaltender. Unless he spends this season regressing to a well-below average goaltender, it’s fair to assume he’ll command at least $5.5 million per season on a new deal.
Whether he gets that from the Penguins or not solely could be determined by his availability for the playoffs next season, assuming Pittsburgh clinches a spot for the 17th straight season.
Jarry’s last two postseasons saw a lot of misfortune. In the 2020-21 season, Jarry couldn’t stop a beach ball. His confidence was shot entirely. Despite the Penguins outplaying the Islanders, Jarry put together one of the worst postseason performances in recent memory.
Jarry followed that up by having a career-best regular season. He started 56 games for Pittsburgh and posted 34 wins with a .919 save percentage and 2.42 goals against average. With just under ten games left in this regular season, Jarry suffered an injury to the foot/ankle area. He was unavailable for the entirety of the series against the Rangers outside of game seven. He put together a solid game in a warrior-like performance despite not being 100%.
In an ideal world, Jarry returns this season, puts together a similar regular season with a slightly lighter workload, and helps the Penguins win a playoff series for the first time since 2017.
The key phrase here, however, is the “lighter workload.”
The Penguins need a goaltender who can fill the void and keep Jarry from playing upwards of 60 games like he would’ve had he not gotten injured. Much of that had to do with the early season play of Casey DeSmith, who couldn't sustain any type of consistency with the very limited starts he received.
Eventually, his play improved and he got a handful of extra starts along the way. He played very well in the final handful of games and into the plethora of overtimes in game one of the Rangers series before his core muscle injury forced him out for the rest of the season.
DeSmith just began skating again and should make a full recovery before the season starts back up in just a few months. Could the Penguins run it back with DeSmith again? He was surely in line to have a chance at a nice payday if he could parlay his playoff opportunity into a series win. Unfortunately, he’ll have to settle for another backup-level short-term deal.
The Penguins could go outside the organization and bring in a new goaltender or even a familiar face like Marc-Andre Fleury.
Something Ron Hextall has to decide, however, is how much he wants to challenge Jarry.
Complacency is something you never want to see from a goalie. Having your goalie look over his shoulder if you believe he is the future might not be a great idea either.
Bringing in Fleury would be one of the better PR moves the Penguins could make, especially if they move on from one of Evgeni Malkin or Kris Letang. Fleury might not be interested in returning if the gang isn’t together, so the point might be moot.
Giving Flower a black and gold No. 29 jersey again would be great for fans and a feel good story for him on what could be his final contract. But it would also be a reason for fans to clamor to give the net back to Jarry at the first sign of trouble. And if Jarry is the future, is that something you want to do?
We’ve already seen what destroying Jarry’s confidence can provide in a results-based sense. The Penguins don’t need that to happen with a Fleury situation.
They could go after a veteran like Braden Holtby, Jaroslav Halak, or Martin Jones. That would make Jarry the unquestioned number one and give the Penguins a solid veteran presence behind him in the case of emergency.
Nothing will come easy this offseason, regardless of the situation. There will be plenty of salary cap gymnastics and franchise-altering decisions. The decision the Penguins make regarding their backup goaltender could shape their future in the blue paint.
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