The goal situation was the biggest question mark for the Pittsburgh Penguins at the start of the 2021-22 season, and at the midpoint it’s been a bit of a mixed bag of some really good and some not-so-good.
The really cool development is that Tristan Jarry has bounced back in a big way and has been one of the best goalies in the league thus far, earning his second All-Star appearance. He had one of his best games of the season on Sunday in a 3-2 penalty shootout win against the Winnipeg Jets, where he kept the team in the game from the start by making one standout save after another. Most of them against Kyle Connor, who seemed to have an excellent opportunity to score whenever he was on the ice.
The not-so-good development has been the play of backup Casey DeSmith, who has consistently been unable to find his game this season, an issue dating back to the end of the 2020-21 season.
Some advanced number in both goalkeepers.
DeSmith started Friday at Columbus and was benched after the first period after giving up two relatively nasty goals in the first period. That was a notable decision by coach Mike Sullivan because it was the second half of a straight game while Jarry had already been given a significant amount of playing time. Typically, in a back-to-back, the backup keeper will play the entire game no matter what, in an effort to give the starter a break. That obviously didn’t happen here. The other important part of that decision is that it’s the second straight start DeSmith has been benched too early, in a game that was still close, as part of a back-to-back situation. That should tell you everything you need to know about the level of trust the coaching staff has in him.
After Friday’s game, Sullivan talked about DeSmith coming back from a long layoff and how the team didn’t really put him in a position to be successful given the amount of practice time, and there’s probably some truth to that. Being a backup goalkeeper is a pretty tough role in itself because you’ll never get consistent playing time, and a long break between games can definitely be a significant adjustment.
The problem, however, is that DeSmith’s struggles go beyond this beginning. In his last 15 starts since the end of the 2020-21 season, he posted just an .877 save percentage, allowing at least three goals 11 times, at least four goals seven times and five or more goals four times. He’s also been on the bench three times (including Friday’s game where he allowed two goals in one hockey period).
If you’re looking at the Penguins’ roster right now and their season, this is probably the only glaring weakness you’d like to see addressed.
The question is how much is that worth and how much does it matter.
We need to start with the second question here first, because ideally your backup goalie doesn’t play much, especially in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Ideally being the keyword. But the last two times the Penguins won the Stanley Cup in 2015-16 and 2016-17 they needed two goalies (and in one of those years three goalies) to get to the playoffs. Not only that, as well as Jarry has played this season, he will remain a question mark until he shows this level of play in the playoffs. Maybe that’s unfair, maybe that’s unreasonable, maybe I’m underestimating him and his performance this season. That’s how these things work. A more proven safety net might not be the worst thing in case you need to fall back on it for one reason or another in the playoffs.
The other aspect of all of this is the simple fact that you don’t want to let Jarry wear himself out from the heavy workload of the regular season, especially with a pretty condensed schedule ahead of him in February and March with all the games rescheduled. You want to be able to take Jarry out of some games, and you also want to be able to win them.
So what are the options?
Louis Domingue is getting a lot of attention for the way he played in his only start this season, but I’m not sure if he’s the answer. Aside from the fact that he is injured, his NHL record has been spotty in his various stops in the league. It would be a bet.
In terms of potential business partners and potential rentals, two names that stand out are Jaroslav Halak in Vancouver and Braden Holtby in Dallas. Both are unrestricted free agents pending after this season, both are relatively cheap compared to the salary cap, both have a history of playing at a high level in the NHL, and both could be available before the trade deadline. At the very least, it wouldn’t hurt to explore the cost.
Either way, it’s a position that needs to be addressed somewhat because it’s becoming clear that the Penguins don’t really trust the current backup, and they’ll need a second goalie to play some games here in the second half of the season. You also want to have a backup goaltender that you can count on if you need one during the Stanley Cup Playoffs.