Saturday, Feb. 20, started like any other game day for Jeff Zatkoff. The Penguins’ backup netminder reported to work at CONSOL Energy Center, just as he has for most every game this season, expecting to back up starter Marc-Andre Fleury.
But fate had other plans for Zatkoff Saturday, and the implications might carry through the rest of the season – and beyond.
Fleury was under the weather when he reported for the 12:30 p.m. start against Tampa Bay, so Zatkoff got the last-minute nod. His team did him no favors, getting off to a lethargic start and letting the Lightning jump out to a 3-0 lead, but Zatkoff’s performance, stopping just 16 of 20 shots in the Penguins’ eventual 4-2 loss, was far from sharp.
“Credit to [Tampa] for getting traffic in front of the net, right?” Zatkoff said of long-range shots that deflected in off of teammates Olli Maatta and Sidney Crosby. “I’ve got to seal up there, maybe. If I don’t see it, I just have to make sure it doesn’t go through me, kind of sneak through me. If it goes around me, off a post and in, it’s a good shot.
“A few of those seeing-eye-goal shots, I would’ve liked to have been able to find, or keep [the game] a little closer early on. But I thought we played hard; I thought were resilient. I thought we were in the game, even being down, 4-1. The guys battled back and, if we get one on that 4-on-3 [power play to end the second period], I think it’s a different game.”
In the end, however, it was a loss, and a missed opportunity for a team that’s on the playoff bubble and in need of every point it can get. And Sunday, although the 28-year-old Zatkoff has been a serviceable backup for Fleury, going 4-6-1 in 13 games played with a 2.78 goals-against average and .917 save percentage, the Penguins decided to go in a different direction.
With the parent club recalling star prospect Matt Murray from the AHL for the second time this season, the writing seems to be on the wall for Zatkoff.
Murray went 2-1-1 in his first four NHL games in December, posting a 1.72 GAA and .938 save percentage while Fleury was sidelined with a concussion. The 21-year-old netminder has started the majority of games for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins this year, going 19-9-4 with a 2.11 GAA and .0931 save percentage.
Murray is also coming off a record-setting 2014-15 with the Baby Penguins, posting the league’s best GAA (1.58) and save percentage (.941) while winning AHL Rookie of the Year and Best Goaltender honors, being named to the First All-Star and All-Rookie teams, and breaking the AHL record for rookie shutouts (12).
That might have made Murray seem like a shoo-in to start this season in Pittsburgh but, with no chance of starting in the NHL just yet, the Penguins felt his development was better served by playing more games.
“It’s easy to get excited when a prospect has the kind of season Matt did, but we did not see that coming,” former assistant GM Tom Fitzgerald said at Penguins development camp last July. “We have to manage [expectations]. He’s not coming in here and beating out Marc-Andre Fleury and taking over this team.
“We love what we have down the line here, [but] it is down the line. He just turned 21. He needs to play hockey games; [he] can’t develop if he’s sitting on the bench. That’s just a fact.”
With just 24 games remaining in Pittsburgh’s season, however – including a 16-game month of March and five back-to-backs – chances are the Penguins have decided they have enough opportunities for Fleury’s backup to play, and that both they and Murray will benefit from having him on the roster.
Murray and Zatkoff are nearly equal in cost-effectiveness for the Penguins, who are up against the NHL salary cap. Zatkoff is at the end of a two-year deal paying him $600K at the NHL level, while Murray has two years remaining on a $628K entry-level deal.
If Murray proves as effective in the NHL as he’s been in the AHL, there’s a chance that cap-friendly number could make Fleury expendable before his $5.75M contract is up in 2018-19 – a possibility that’s certainly occurred to the Penguins, who have reportedly rebuffed teams that have expressed interest in trading for Murray.
For now, though, the question is simply whether the youngster is sticking around. Sunday afternoon, when Murray served as backup for Fleury’s 4-3 win in Buffalo, head coach Mike Sullivan wasn’t taking the bait.
“I made a decision for today,” he said. “Of course there’s a chance. The approach we’ve taken with this team is one game at a time, and we’re not going to get ahead of ourselves. We’ve penciled in games where we think it’s appropriate for the backup goalie [to start]. Nothing’s etched in stone, and this game has a funny way of throwing curveballs at you – like yesterday, for example.
“We’re trying to put all of our players in a position to be successful. Our goaltenders are the same way.”