Expectations were tempered for Pittsburgh Penguins goaltending prospect Matt Murray. Heading into the 2014-15 season, his first year as a pro, Murray was expected to compete with veteran Jeff Zatkoff for starts in the AHL. Instead, the first-year goalie finished the 2014-15 season as AHL Goaltender of the Year, AHL Rookie of the Year, and led the league in goals-against average, shutouts, and save percentage.
Murray’s AHL rookie season ranks among the best individual regular seasons in league history. In 40 games played for the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins, Murray posted a 1.58 goals-against average, which was .3 goals less than any other goaltender in the league. He also managed a .941 save percentage and set an AHL rookie record with 12 shutouts. Murray finished one shutout shy of tying Jason LaBarbera’s single season record of 13, which was set in the 2003-04 season.
“It was a huge year for me development wise. I definitely made the most strides last year than any other year in my entire career,” Murray said. “Honestly, I was really proud of the season I had. A lot of challenges on the way and [I] rose up to conquer them – most of them. That’s how I treat my whole career, challenging myself and just trying to pass every test that comes my way.”
“We did not see that coming,” said Penguins former assistant general manager Tom Fitzgerald. “We knew he was a good goalie. We knew he’d have some growing pains. No one ever expected him to be goalie of the year in the AHL as a 20-year-old.”
Although his finish to the 2014-15 season was stellar, it took Murray some time to get into a groove. He was 6-6-2 through the end of December, and was allowing an average of 2.36 goals per game while splitting starts with Zatkoff. But things changed when Zatkoff suffered a minor injury in practice and Murray had the chance to seize the starter’s job. From January 21st to April 17th, Murray posted an 18-3-1 record and eight shutouts, including a streak of four shutouts in a row, dating from February 13th to March 7th.
“When I was in that streak, I really wasn’t thinking about it,” Murray said. “Once the game ends, I’m looking forward to the next game, and really, I look at every game as a new challenge. I think that’s the best way to do it. It keeps you in the moment and I think athletes are at their best when they’re in the moment and their focus is one-hundred percent on the game at hand.”
“It’s easy to get excited about a prospect like that,” said Fitzgerald, who recently was hired by the New Jersey Devils after eight years with the Penguins. “[The Penguins] have to manage those expectations. He’s not coming in and beating out Marc-Andre Fleury.”
For the 2015-16 season, Murray realizes he will be hard pressed to replicate the type of numbers he managed in his rookie year.
“I’m always trying to get better,” Murray said. “At this point in your hockey career, your style of play is basically what it is. You make real small changes that are going to help you make that jump to the next level. It’s definitely going to be difficult. I’m going to have to get faster. I’m going to have to get smarter and think the game a little bit quicker, to kind of see plays before they happen – really be able to read the play.”
“Managing expectations is huge in our business,” Fitzgerald added. “Quite honestly, it’s unfair…to think that Matt can have the same type of season that he had last year. Seriously, how could he? Anything less than goalie of the year is a failure? No.”
Murray will go into the 2015-16 season with different goals than last year. Zatkoff, who finished the 2014-15 AHL season with a .910 save percentage and 2.45 goals-against average, appears to be a shoe-in for the backup job behind Fleury. The door is open for Murray to take the reins in the AHL and not look back.
“Last year I was really clueless as to where I’d be. I thought I might even be in the East Coast league (ECHL) to start the year,” Murray said. “That was a challenge in itself and this year a completely new challenge. A big thing for me is just coming into the season with an open mind and realizing I’ve never been in this position before. Try to keep it even-keeled and in the moment, because that’s when I’m at my best.”
Murray talked to several goaltenders about what to expect in his second year of professional hockey, namely a pair of veterans in the Penguins organization.
“I talk to [Marc-Andre Fleury] every time I get the chance. [He] is a great guy to learn from,” Murray said. “Even Jeff Zatkoff, every time I had a chance to ask him about a new experience I would be in his ear. Basically, anybody who I look up to, I try to be a sponge. I’m sure I get a little annoying asking so many questions, but those are the guys that have done what I hope to do in the future. I’m sure when they were in my position they were probably the same and that’s why they’re so great today.”
“It’ll be a big challenge,” Murray added. “That’s what I’m playing for, to make that next jump. It’s what drives me every day. I’m looking forward to it.”
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