Three games out of 82 is too small a sample size to make a just decision on a player’s performance.
For Antti Niemi and his time with the Pittsburgh Penguins, the front office deemed it was long enough.
Rightfully so, as in just three games with Pittsburgh, posted numbers that established himself as the worst goalie in the league.
He was placed on waivers Monday morning.
The Penguins went from having their goaltending position maybe the strength of the team, to where it is a legitimate concern.
Matt Murray hasn’t been bad, but a rough two games to start the season has his numbers looking less than ideal.
When the Penguins asked Marc-Andre Fleury to waive his no-trade clause so he can be selected by Vegas, they knew Murray would to be ‘the guy’ in Pittsburgh. He backstopped them in the Stanley Cup Final in each of the last two seasons, posting back-to-back shutouts to help clinch another win this past year.
With Fleury gone, Pittsburgh needed a new backup goalie, hopefully, one with experience to play behind the still young Murray. Niemi seemed like a perfect fit. But, after three straight losses, all the while allowing at least four goals in each game (4,5,7), it turned out to be the wrong decision.
With Niemi being put on waivers, the Penguins recalled Casey DeSmith from Wilkes-Barre Scranton, as opposed to one of their top prospects in Tristan Jarry.
Who is Casey DeSmith?
While Murray and Jarry were high draft picks (third and second round, respectively), DeSmith went undrafted and signed with Wilkes-Barre after three years at the University of New Hampshire.
In the short time he has been with Wilkes-Barre, DeSmith has established himself as one of the better goalies in the AHL. Last season, DeSmith was named to the AHL All-Rookie team after playing in 29 games and keeping his goals-against-average (GAA) near two (2.01).
In 38 games in the AHL, DeSmith has posted an impressive 1.91 GAA and a .929 save percentage (SV%).
After Jarry was recalled by the Penguins two years prior, DeSmith remained the starter during the playoffs after his return.
While it may not have been the ‘flashy’ recall, it was a well-earned opportunity for DeSmith. It does, however, say a few things about the Penguins going forward for the rest of the season.
They are committed to taking it slow with Jarry
At 22 years old, Jarry is still young in goalie years, even with the success that the Penguins have had with young goalies. Murray has won the Stanley Cup twice, and Fleury already established himself as a starting goalie in the league by the same age as Jarry.
Murray is still just a year older than Jarry.
It isn’t uncommon for organizations to let their goalies slowly develop in the minors before taking over at the NHL level.
Braden Holtby (132 AHL games), Corey Crawford (255), Ben Bishop (175), and Martin Jones (158) are all among some of the better goalies in the league who spent plenty of time in the minors.
Jarry has played just 81 AHL games in his career, and while that’s more than Murray and Fleury played (both coincidently played 71), there is still an opportunity to gain experience.
The Penguins have been high on Jarry for a while. They traded up in the draft, and by selecting him, made him the second goalie taken that year. They even traded fan and team favorite Tyler Kennedy, who was a pending free agent, to help secure the pick to take him.
There was talk that the Penguins believed he could have been the backup this season, but general manager Jim Rutherford preferred to let him play another year in the minors.
“I lean toward continuing to keep him developing,” Rutherford said back in June. “He’s made huge strides here since he’s turned pro. If he ends up playing as the backup, I’m comfortable with that, but ideally, we give him more time to develop in Wilkes-Barre…”
Give credit to Rutherford for coming up with a plan and sticking with it.
More moves may come
Speaking of the man with a plan, Rutherford came out and said this move may not be a permanent one.
“This is a situation that we’ll watch on a week-to-week basis really…”, he said.
So what if DeSmith struggles, and the Penguins really want to keep Jarry in the minors for the whole season?
Pittsburgh would have to look outside the organization for help although the names out there may not offer much more help.
Calvin Pickard may be the biggest name out there in the minors. After being selected by the Golden Knights in the expansion draft, he was placed on waivers before ever playing a game with them. He was claimed by the Toronto Maple Leafs but has been playing in the AHL since then.
Long-time backup Curtis McElhinney could be dealt by the Leafs to make room for the younger Pickard to play behind Frederik Andersen.
Andrew Hammond, Jeff Zatkoff, Dustin Tokarski, and Jared Coreau are other notable names that are playing in the minors right now that could justifiably make a case as a backup in the NHL.
The Penguins would lose another pick in gaining a goalie and are already without their third and fourth-round picks this year. They gained a fourth-round back in the Derrick Pouliot trade and are also without their 2020 second-round pick.
Murray will play, A LOT
The idea behind signing someone like Niemi was so they could give Murray an extra game or two off, lightening his workload for another playoff push.
A fresher goalie come postseason time could mean the difference between a three-peat and an early playoff exit.
Add in the fact that Murray’s career high in games played at the NHL level is 49, this year seemed important to have a capable backup.
As it looks now, Murray will get the full treatment in his first full season as the undisputed number one in net, without the safety net of Fleury.
When factoring in the regular season number one goalies for the past 12 Stanley Cup champs, the average amount of games played is 54. Only Jonathan Quick (twice), Fleury, and Martin Gerber played in over 60 games the year they won the Cup. It should also be noted that Gerber was replaced by Cam Ward during the playoffs.
The Penguins might not have the choice but to push the limit with Murray. If the backup plays in one-half of the 14 other back-to-backs the Penguins plays, that will place Murray at around 66 games played this season.
Of the past 12 Stanley Cup winners, that total has only been topped twice, both by Quick.
Can DeSmith get the job done?
The Penguins will have the perfect opportunity to find out what they may have in a backup with DeSmith.
Pittsburgh has a pair of home games against the Edmonton Oilers and Winnipeg Jets during the week before heading on the road for a weekend back-to-back. They will take on the Minnesota Wild on Saturday before playing the Jets again on Sunday.
While his sample size is small, DeSmith has gotten the job done in the role he was given at the AHL level. Maybe the best player to call up to be a backup is your minor league backup who has succeeded in the same role.
The Penguins are in a great position to make a rare run at a three-peat, and cannot let something like the backup goalie position keep them from doing so.
With a third-line center acquired, this may be the biggest headline following the Penguins the rest of the season.
Can DeSmith get the job done as the backup? Should the Penguins make a trade for a backup instead? Let us know in the comment section.
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