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NHL’s best players under age 25 for 2017: Matt Murray tops goalies at No. 10

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Few goalies in NHL history have had as much success as Murray in his first two seasons.

2017 NHL Stanley Cup Final - Game Five Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Note: This is SB Nation NHL’s top 25 players under age 25 series! We’ll be covering each player from No. 25 to No. 1 over the next few weeks leading up to training camp time. See the complete list and information on how the rankings were compiled.

It’s rather incredible to consider that Matt Murray has played in just 62 NHL regular-season games. The Penguins goaltender has already won two Stanley Cups and established himself as one of the premier players at his position. It’s a reflection of how good he’s been that it’s happened with such a small sample size.

Murray took the NHL by storm in 2016 when he snagged the starting goalie gig from Marc-Andre Fleury, then turned in monster performance after monster performance to help the Penguins to their first Stanley Cup in seven years. He was a beast, with a .923 save percentage and 2.08 goals-allowed average over 21 starts.

That continued during the 2016-17 season as Murray filled the 1A starter role with Fleury as his 1B. He was notably better in his 47 starts than Fleury in his 34, but together they gave Pittsburgh a steady goaltending duo that could match up with any in the league.

When Murray took back the starting gig full time in the 2017 playoffs and delivered another string of dominant performances to lead the Pens to another Stanley Cup, it became clear that the time is now for the 23-year-old to reach his complete potential.

Now the Penguins have gone all-in on Murray as their starting goalie after the Vegas Golden Knights nabbed Fleury in the expansion draft, and it should be a chance for him to elevate to Vezina contender status with 60-plus starts.

Past accomplishments

Murray has already accomplished more than some NHL players do in their entire careers by winning a pair of Stanley Cups. He had a lot of help up front with the likes of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Phil Kessel in starring roles, but the Penguins probably don’t win both of those championships without Murray’s .928 playoff save percentage.

It’s not like Pittsburgh was dominating possession during its past two playoff runs. Rather, the team found a winning mix through top-notch finishing ability and goaltending. Even if other teams were holding a slight advantage in shot distribution, the Penguins’ stars were so good that it didn’t matter in the end.

In addition to his playoff prowess, Murray also stands out as one of the most statistically impressive young goalies in recent memory. Only Cam Talbot has posted a better save percentage (.931) in his first two seasons (50-plus starts minimum) than Murray’s .925 among NHL goalies since the 2004 lockout, per Play Index.

So he’s already one of the best young goalies of his era, both in terms of regular-season performance and postseason success.

Future impact

Murray is positioned to be one of the best goalies in the NHL for the next decade. There are myriad reasons why he could slow down later in his career, but for now, the Penguins should feel extremely confident about having Murray as their full-time starter between the pipes.

Pittsburgh has the goaltender signed for the next three seasons at an affordable $3.75 million cap hit that looks like a bargain now. He’ll also still be a restricted free agent when the deal expires, so the Penguins will hold extra leverage to get him signed long term in 2020 if he continues playing at a high rate through his early 20s.

At that point, he’ll be arbitration-eligible, which could complicate matters for both sides. But the Penguins presumably aren’t sweating three years down the line too much. They’re still firmly a win-now team looking to pull off a historic three-peat, and Murray will be a big part of that effort.

Is this ranking too high or too low?

Goalies can be more volatile than skaters over their careers, and given Murray’s relatively small sample size, it makes sense that he’s landed 10th in the rankings. The thing is, if he keeps playing at this kind of level for 60-plus games each year, he’ll probably be one of the top 10 players in the entire league regardless of position.

Obviously that’s the hard part, as Carey Price is the only goalie in the league who has sustained elite save percentages over the past several seasons. If you look at the list of goalies to put up great numbers in their first two seasons, it includes Nicklas Backstrom (.923), Jonas Hiller (.921), and Eddie Lack (.917) — all players who didn’t sustain that level of performance throughout their careers.

So it’s possible Murray won’t be able to keep this up. But given he’s been even better than those three and the playoff performance, there are a lot of reasons to be optimistic. And if he’s rolling out .920-.930 save percentages over 60-70 games each year, No. 10 on this list will look low.

Highest rank: No. 2
Lowest rank: Not ranked