Changes are coming in Pittsburgh this off-season, but GM Jim Rutherford is “not even really thinking about free agency right now”. Speaking with Josh Yohe of the Athletic, Rutherford admits that “we won’t really have the cap space to do anything anyway. We’re going to re-sign some of our restricted free agents. And at that point, we’re around the cap.” The Penguins need to re-sign RFA’s Bryan Rust, Riley Sheahan, Daniel Sprong, Jamie Oleksiak and more and even with the expected increase to the salary cap limit will only have $8-12MM maximum to work with. The team could make a couple additional minor moves here and there on the unrestricted free agent market, but Rutherford is correct that team is strapped for the cap space to make any significant signings this summer, at least as things stand now.
As a result, it is the trade market that Rutherford is more interested in. The team has already stated that they don’t plan to buy out any of their current players, but they could look to move them via trade. Atop that list are likely wingers Carl Hagelin and Conor Sheary and defenseman Matt Hunwick. In fact, the blue line appears to be the most likely area for a player to be traded away, as the team enters next season with six veterans under contract and Oleksiak and Frank Corrado as restricted free agents. Rutherford stated to Yohe that defenseman Brian Dumoulin is the most untouchable player on the back end due to his invaluable defensive play, and also expressed his fondness for Oleksiak and Olli Maatta as well. Rutherford said that the front office is optimistic that Kris Letang and Hunwick will perform better next year and were happy with the play of Justin Schultz and Chad Ruhwedel as they made up for Letang’s and Hunwick’s shortcomings respectively this season. However, Rutherford added that his comfort with this group doesn’t mean that won’t make a change.
The goal in making any deal is to improve the depth and youth of the Penguins’ forward corps. This explains why the team was connected to Max Domi recently, before he was traded to the Montreal Canadiens last week. The team is seeking versatility and upside up front and are willing to move substantial assets to get it, but Rutherford wasn’t willing to part with the Alex Galchenyuk-level ask from the Arizona Coyotes for Domi. Rutherford knows that even if he does nothing this summer, Pittsburgh will still be a contender, and as such he does not need to overpay in any trade. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are not going anywhere and Rutherford has already confirmed that he is not shopping Phil Kessel. It’s safe to assume that young winger Jake Guentzel and new acquisition Derick Brassard are also safe. That is already shaping up to be a solid group yet again and the internal addition of younger players should add energy and potential. However, Rutherford’s preference still is to add depth and even more youth if he can to combat the injuries and fatigue that hurt his aging roster last year. Those are the moves he is looking to make this summer and it seems inevitable that at least one such transaction will be made by the expert executive. They may not be three-peat champions, but the Penguins are going to re-stock and be dangerous again in 2018-19.