The Pittsburgh Penguins could once boast they had the best goaltending tandem in the NHL. During their back-to-back Stanley Cup-winning seasons in 2015-16 and 2016-17, franchise goalie Marc-Andre Fleury and standout rookie Matt Murray backstopped the Penguins to championships over the San Jose Sharks and Nashville Predators, respectively. However, the Penguins have since lost both players – Fleury in the summer of 2017 to the Vegas Golden Knights and Murray in a trade with the Ottawa Senators in Oct. 2020. Their replacement, Tristan Jarry, has helped the Penguins win 10 of their last 12 games this season and has cemented himself as the go-to guy in the blue paint.
Backup netminder Casey DeSmith, however, is a different story. After he went undrafted, he studied business while playing college hockey for the University of New Hampshire Wildcats. He signed his first professional contract with the East Coast Hockey League’s Wheeling Nailers in 2015 and was a journeyman throughout his time in the minors. He officially arrived in Pittsburgh on July 1, 2017, and made his NHL debut against the Los Angeles Kings on Jan. 18, 2018. His short career has mostly been successful, learning under Murray and Jarry. Unfortunately, he’s struggling this season, and although DeSmith can be an excellent and capable backup when he’s on, he’s a liability when he isn’t.
DeSmith’s 2021-22 Stats Don’t Reflect the Player He Once Was
In three full seasons in the NHL, DeSmith has blossomed into one of the league’s best backups. Including this season, he has a career record of 35-25-7 with a 2.71 goals-against average (GAA) and a .971 save percentage (SV%); in each season, he posted an SV% over .900 and a GAA below 3.00. He carried that success over from the American Hockey League’s Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, where he and Jarry won the Hap Holmes Memorial Award as the best goaltending tandem in 2017.
DeSmith’s early successes make this season all the more difficult to watch. Although the Penguins have been one of the best teams in the league recently, his play hasn’t helped them get there. On Jan. 5 against the St. Louis Blues, the Pens trailed 3-1 mid-way through the second period but came out on top, 5-3. While that speaks to the team’s mentality and ability to persevere, two of the Blues’ three goals came from a distance with very little traffic in front. DeSmith was pulled from the game,k and Jarry held the fort the rest of the way.
Penguins’ head coach Mike Sullivan said this of DeSmith:
“You know, it doesn’t diminish how we feel about Casey. He’s played some really good minutes for us. He’s a quality goaltender. I didn’t think Case was tracking it as well as he has been, and so I just felt like it was the right thing to do at the time. It was a coach’s instinct on my part (to replace DeSmith). And so that’s why we decided to make the change.”
– Mike Sullivan
This season, DeSmith has a 3-3-1 record with a 3.47 GAA and a .888 SV%, well below what he has shown he can do in the past. He has surrendered three or more goals in 12 of his last 14 starts and ranks 60th of 62 goalies at 5-on-5 SV%. The Penguins have been successful in spite of DeSmith, not because of him.
Should the Penguins Look For a Replacement?
While no one within the Penguins organization will openly admit that DeSmith hasn’t played up to standard, it may be time to find a replacement. There are a handful of suitable candidates that general manager (GM) Ron Hextall could bring in, but none is more attractive than the Boston Bruins’ Linus Ullmark. The timing couldn’t be better. The organization just signed long-time Bruin Tuukka Rask to a professional tryout, which likely means he’s on his way back to being their starter, and sophomore Jeremy Swayman will likely replace Ullmark as backup.
Ullmark proved himself enough to earn a four-year, $20 million contract in the offseason, and Bruins’ GM Don Sweeney has spoken extremely highly of his ability. Ullmark’s .937 5-on-5 SV% in 2020-21 was good for fourth in the league, ahead of Stanley Cup champion Andrei Vasilevskiy and Vezina Trophy-winner Fleury. Not only was he one of the league’s better goaltenders last season, but he is also three years DeSmith’s junior and has played much more consistently over his career as a former member of the Buffalo Sabres. He’s provided the Bruins with tremendous stability since the departures of Rask and Jaroslav Halak and could be a perfect fit for Sullivan’s system.
DeSmith has the potential to be a fantastic NHL backup and has shown glimpses of his ability before, but his recent play has diminished his stock and may result in the Penguins exploring other options.
Covering the Pittsburgh Penguins and other topics for The Hockey Writers. Also a big fan of the Chicago Cubs and progressive rock music.