One of the keys to the success of the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs has been an outstanding performance by rookie goaltender Matt Murray.
With a .924 save percentage, 2.22 goals-against average, and an 11-4 record, Murray has been the steady force that has helped the Penguins reach the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since they won the Stanley Cup in 2009, and could win the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP if Pittsburgh wins it again.
When it comes to Murray, it's easy to get swept up in comparisons to great rookie performances of the past, including the inspiring story of Ken Dryden, who helped the Montreal Canadiens win the Stanley Cup in 1971 with six games of NHL experience, or Patrick Roy, who was 20 years old when he won the Conn Smythe Trophy with the Canadiens as a rookie goalie in 1986. Montreal's victory that season came over another team with a rookie goalie, Mike Vernon of the Calgary Flames.
Dryden, Roy, and Vernon are three of five rookies who won more playoff games than Murray has this postseason: Ron Hextall (15) of the Philadelphia Flyers in 1987 and Cam Ward (15) of the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006 are the others, who each won the Conn Smythe Trophy.
However, it's important to keep Murray's success in the proper perspective. His numbers may be outstanding in absolute terms, but they are not among the top rookies of all-time once adjusted for the lower-scoring nature of the current era. Furthermore, although postseason success can be a signal of a great career, it's not a guarantee.
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Of the 26 rookie goalies to win at least four playoff games since save percentage was first recorded in 1982-83, Murray's .924 save percentage ranks fourth, and his 2.22 goals-against average ranks eighth.
However, scoring levels fluctuate over time, and right now are relatively low. In the regular season, the NHL average was .915 for save percentage, and 2.51 for goals-against average. That means Murray is playing better than average, but not necessarily at the same elite level as the other rookie goalies.
For example, compare these numbers to the high-scoring 1985-86 season, when Roy had a similar save percentage of .923, and a goals-against average of 1.92. Given the NHL average was .874 for save percentage, and 3.86 for goals-against average, Roy's numbers were more outstanding than Murray's, in relative terms.
When adjusting the numbers for all 26 rookie goalies to modern-day scoring levels, Murray ranks No. 19 in save percentage, and No. 17 in goals-against average. Strong results, but nothing that warrants comparisons to Hockey Hall of Fame members Roy and Dryden.
Even if comparisons to them are a stretch, can Murray's success be interpreted as a strong signal for NHL success both next season and for years to come?
Once adjusted for the different scoring levels of the years in which they played, Murray's closest peers in age and statistics include Mario Gosselin of the Quebec Nordiques in 1984-85, Sean Burke of the New Jersey Devils in 1987-88, and Semyon Varlamov of the Washington Capitals in 2008-09, who each achieved a reasonable level of success in the following season and throughout their career.
It's also important to make note of Murray's .930 save percentage in 13 games with the Penguins during the regular season and his equally impressive .936 save percentage in 72 American Hockey League games with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
Add it all up, and there's enough evidence to predict a career as a solid NHL starter, but not necessarily one that will include a cabinet full of Vezina Trophies.
In fairness, there are never any guarantees of future NHL success, even for those at the very top of the leaderboard. The best example of that is Steve Penney, who led the Canadiens to the conference final in 1983-84 with four NHL games of experience, leading the postseason with three shutouts and a goals-against average of 2.20.
Penney finished third in voting for the Calder Trophy the following season, but groin and knee injuries quickly derailed his career, which included 33 more games with Montreal and the Winnipeg Jets.
That's just one more reason to keep Murray's success in the proper perspective. Although his rookie performance has been inspiring and he has been a key factor in Pittsburgh's success, the underlying numbers do not suggest he's the next Dryden. On the other hand, a strong and capable NHL starter is all an outstanding team like the Penguins really needs, anyway.