Off-Season Checklist: Pittsburgh Penguins
With the offseason in full swing outside of the two teams in the Stanley Cup Finals, it’s time to take a look at what each team will have to accomplish in the coming months. Next up is a look at the Penguins.
Despite some key injuries in the playoffs, the Penguins nearly passed Rangers in the first round, giving GM Ron Hextall a tough choice to restart him with that same core with Sidney Crosby another top-of-the-range center or to begin a phase of reconstruction. Considering their stated intention is to keep their winning window open, their summer checklist reflects that.
Get Goalie Stability
Tristan Jarry was once considered Pittsburgh’s goaltender of the future after a stellar junior career. When Matt Murray was traded to Ottawa two drafts ago, he became their goaltender of the moment. However, it’s now fair to wonder whether or not he is their goalkeeper of the future beyond next season. The 27-year-old is coming off a strong regular season that saw him post a 2.49 GAA and 0.919 SV%, but 159 games into his NHL career there are still questions as to whether or not he should be their long-term starter. If management is sold on Jarry, then working on a long-term extension with an AAV starting with a five would be worth it and that decision can be made from July 13.
But what if they don’t feel that way or want to see what 2022-23 brings before making that kind of commitment? This is when things start to get a little dicey. There’s no Jarry-like hope in the minors within a year or two of being NHL ready. There’s not even an NHL-caliber replacement under contract with Casey DeSmith ready to become an unrestricted free agent this summer and journeyman Louis Domingo (their starter for most playoffs) also hit the open market. In an ideal world, they’d add a quality backup on a multi-year deal and give themselves a short-term upgrade to that second spot and some longer-term stability.
Of course, an ideal world implies that they have enough space to do this and accomplish their other summer goals. As we’ll get to shortly, the only way something like this could happen is if things don’t go well on those other fronts. A cheap short-term contract might be all they can afford and if they head into next season with Jarry on an expiring contract and a short-term backup, it’s not an ideal situation for a very important position.
Retain or Replace Veteran Stars
Now let’s get to the obvious. Right now, Pittsburgh has over $23 million in cap space, which sounds wonderful without context. That background is that two of their longtime veteran stars, center Yevgeny Malkin and defender Kris Letang, will become unrestricted free agents next month. As a result, most (if not all) of their off-season planning will revolve around this duo in terms of trying to keep them or finding a way to replace them.
When healthy, Malkin remains a top NHL center and has averaged less than a point per game just once in the past decade. However, there is another key thing that has only happened once in the last decade and that is the 36-year-old playing at least 70 games in a season. Malkin has had long clashes with injury issues and last season was no exception which really complicates things from a valuation perspective. When Malkin is in the lineup and producing at a points-per-game rate, his market value isn’t that far off from the $9.5 million AAV of his soon-to-expire contract. But since he can’t stay in line consistently, it’s also a huge risk to give him that kind of money. The only way for the Penguins to earn part of his salary by staying healthy is with a one-year contract and Malkin has no reason to accept that because he can probably land a three- or four-year contract the next day. next month. While a pay cut is likely, it probably won’t be substantial.
Then there is Letang. In the last four seasons, only three defenders have more points than the 35-year-old. The low end in terms of AAV for these three players is $7.875 million (Victor Hedman which left money on the table to stay in Tampa Bay) and the top end is $9.059 million (Nashville Romain Josi). You can be sure that Letang representatives will point this out during negotiations. Letang isn’t a stalwart defensive back, but he’s killed penalties for the Penguins and while he’s had his own injury issues in the past, he’s been healthier in recent years. While Pittsburgh would like to try to get Letang for less than his expiring cap of $7.25 million, he could very easily get more if he went to the open market. Contract length is a priority, so if the Penguins are willing to accept a longer deal than they’d like, that should yield a lower AAV than he would get otherwise.
Both players have been stalwarts of the franchise for 16 years, but with everything Hextall needs this summer, it’ll be hard to keep (or replace) both at market value and they still have money left over. meet their other needs. But with the importance of these two, they will definitely try to find a way to make it work.
Create ceiling flexibility
If Hextall is going to be able to keep its two veteran stars, keep some of the other notable UFAs on standby (including wingers Rickard Rakell and Evan Rodrigues), find a quality goalkeeper and leave room for movement during the season, something has to give. Some tough decisions will have to be made on some impact players.
One of them is the winger Kasperi Kapanen. The team used a first-round pick on him twice, first to draft him and then another to reacquire him in 2020, but the return on their reinvestment hasn’t been great in 2021-22. After an impressively shortened campaign, the 25-year-old struggled last term, registering just 11 goals and 21 assists in 32 games while picking up three assists in their seven-game loss to Rangers. That’s not a terrible return on a cap of $3.2 million, but it’s safe to say they were hoping for more. If they submit a qualifying offer to him this summer (technically speaking, that offer is only worth $840,000 based on the structure of his expiring deal), Kapanen will be eligible for arbitration where his previous years could bring his value closer. $4 million, which is below the walking threshold. Its commercial value will not be too high because of this situation, so a non-tender is a definite possibility. While this would create additional flexibility, it would also create another spot on the impact list to be filled.
So there is jason zucker, another winger. Former Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford paid a hefty price to bring him in as well, but he wasn’t able to play at the level he did with Minnesota. When he’s been healthy (and it’s been tough for the past two seasons), he’s been more of a supporting producer, which isn’t ideal for someone with a $5.5 million price tag. . A buyout would give them just under $3.5 million in cap space for next season while adding $1.733 million to the 2023-24 cap, but also create another spot to fill. Alternatively, a trade with some retention that gives less relief next season but carries no penalty for the following year is an option while they could also add a draft pick or prospect to try and bring in a team to take the contract in full. Neither of those are desirable, but putting him on the books next season could cost them the ability to retain a more impactful player.
There are also candidates to move to the back. Marcus Petterson failed to live up to his inflated contract, which carries an AAV of just over $4 million for three more years. Flipping it for someone making less money is something that can be considered. John Marin ($4.4 million for five more years) was the subject of trade speculation during the season and a similar idea could be made with him, especially if they are able to bring Letang back. It’s unlikely they’ll be able to settle all of the contracts, but moving one could give them a bit more financial flexibility. Even with a $23 million cap right now, the Penguins will definitely need all the financial flexibility they can get.
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images. Contract information courtesy of CapFriendly.