DK'S GRIND

Kovacevic: Murray flicks off payday pressure ☕

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Matt Murray on the ice Tuesday in Cranberry, Pa. - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

CRANBERRY, Pa. -- Casey DeSmith laughed with enough force he nearly knocked over the long leg pads stacked up at his stall.

And once he settled from the willfully stupid question I'd just asked ...

"I mean, it's different for every person, right?" he began his reply. "People like to speculate about any professional athlete, 'Oh, it's his contract year, so he's going to be more motivated.' Well, uh, no. That's not how it works for everyone."

Nope. And as he spoke, DeSmith cast a glance across the Penguins' locker room on this Tuesday morning at the Lemieux Complex. Directly at his goaltending partner.

Matt Murray's contract is nearly up.

After the coming NHL season, one for which he'll be paid $3.75 million, he can be a restricted free agent, available to any of the other 30 teams via an offer sheet. RFA signings are rare, as the previous employer holds the right to match any offer. But the process alone can drive up the price dramatically, applying that much more pressure to secure an extension before it reaches that point.

From what I've been told, there's been no approach yet by Jim Rutherford to Murray or his agent, Robert Hooper of Octagon, primarily for one simple reason: There's barely any money left to discuss. Rutherford's so tight against the salary cap that he can't sign Marcus Pettersson, even though both sides apparently are amicably ready to do so. That might necessitate a trade.

Meanwhile, over the past calendar year: The Jets signed Connor Hellebuyck and the Ducks signed Whitehall's John Gibson to six-year extensions, the former at a $6.167 million average annual value, the latter at a $6.64 million AAV. In this past summer's free agency, the Panthers went bonkers for Sergei Bobrovsky, who's never won a blessed thing beyond individual awards and is now 31 years old, with seven years at $10 million AAV. Then, perhaps out of fear for what their Florida counterparts did, the Lightning extended Andrei Vasilevskiy with eight years at $9.5 million AAV.

Just a reminder for perspective: Sidney Crosby's AAV remains $8.7 million.

That's where this is headed, though. If one player at a given position breaks a bank, team executives can dismiss it as an outlier. But when it's this many, the market's been definitively moved.

It doesn't take much to see why. Although goaltending's been the game's most important position since inception, the past four Stanley Cup championships, in particular, have been claimed in large part on superiority between the pipes: Murray outperformed everyone as a rookie in 2016. Murray and Marc-Andre Fleury tag-teamed toward that same impact in 2017. Braden Holtby was brilliant for the Capitals in 2018, and Jordan Binnington carried the Blues from worst to first from the moment he reached St. Louis at season's midpoint.

As Rutherford remarked to me a month back, "That's still No. 1. That's still what you need the most to win it all."

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Murray isn't the NHL's best goaltender, but he's a No. 1 and, being blunt, he's achieved more than any of those guys I just mentioned with those big extensions, with the possible exception of Holtby. What's more, he might have flashed the finest form of his career in the final four months of the 2018-19 season. Despite save percentages of .893 and .850 in the first two months, he'd wind up at .919, a figure that ranked third in the league among all goaltenders with 50-plus starts, eighth among those with 40-plus starts.

So yeah, it's a huge winter ahead, and Murray knows it, even if he isn't wild about the subject.

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