After a record-breaking 15-straight playoff appearances, and a 16th seemingly a given, the Pittsburgh Penguins will head into the 2022 offseason with some difficult questions regarding their core. Once contracts expire, the Penguins will sit with a $51.5MM cap hit for the offseason, leaving $31MM in space, what should feel like a comfortable number. This $51.5MM cap hit includes the $8.7MM cap hit of the still-elite Sidney Crosby, the $6MM cap hit of star Jake Guentzel, goaltender Tristan Jarry, as well as core forward pieces Jason Zucker, Jeff Carter, and Teddy Blueger and all but one of their defensemen.
The problem for Pittsburgh rests with who is a free agent. In addition to key forwards such as Bryan Rust, the newly-acquired Rickard Rakell, and breakout star Evan Rodrigues, the Penguins have Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang both hitting unrestricted free agency. Presently, there doesn’t appear to be much concern that Malkin or Letang want to leave Pittsburgh, or that Pittsburgh doesn’t intend to re-sign them. However, Malkin and Letang are still high-caliber assets despite their ages (Letang will be 35 to start next season, and Malkin will be 36), and will be able to still command a fairly significant salary. Malkin currently holds a $9.5MM cap hit, while Letang has a $7.25MM cap hit.
If they were to re-sign for the same cap hits, that would cost the Penguins $16.75MM in cap space, leaving them with just over $14MM. Even if both take discounts to stay in Pittsburgh, the pair will still command a significant salary between the two of them. Due a significant raise is forward and pending UFA Bryan Rust, who has 56 points in 48 games for the Penguins this season, and 154 points in 159 games since a breakout 2019-20 season.
Rust, who is coming off of a four-year, $14MM contract he signed prior to 2018-19, which carries a $3.5MM cap hit, would likely have to sign somewhere between Zucker’s $5.5MM cap hit and Gunetzel’s $6MM cap hit. Recent UFA contracts like Brock Nelson, Anders Lee, and Kevin Hayes could realistically push Rust above that $6MM number on the open market, however COVID-related issues such as the flat-cap might push Rust into a comparable group of players like Zach Hyman and Jaden Schwartz. As compared to Nelson, Lee, Hayes, Hyman, and Schwartz, Rust should slot comfortably in the $5.5-6MM range.
Speculating on Malkin and Letang, if the Penguins can re-sign them on slightly discounted cap hits, perhaps at $8.5MM and $6MM respectively, they would be left with $16.5MM in cap space this offseason, and if they can sign Rust at $5.75MM, evenly between Zucker and Guentzel, they would then have $10.75MM leftover.
Rakell is coming off of a six-year, $22.8MM contract which saw an annual salary of $3.8MM. Despite a consistent downward trend since a career best 69 points in 77 games in 2017-18, he could still expect a modest raise from his previous salary, especially if he continues to play as well as he has for the Penguins so far, with five points in seven games since the trade. A comparable contract could be the four-year, $17MM contract Tyler Toffoli signed with the Montreal Canadiens last summer before his subsequent trade to the Calgary Flames (a $4.25MM cap hit).
With all of these proposed numbers, the Penguins would then have $6.5MM left. Problems begin, however, with Evan Rodrigues, who is a pending UFA coming off a breakout career year. It’s tough to speculate on what Rodrigues’ next contract would look like, as the 28-year-old forward has 17 goals and 23 assists for 40 points in 70 games this season, his previous best being 29 points in 74 games in 2018-19. In addition to Rodrigues, the Penguins would need to re-sign backup goaltender Casey DeSmith, who has done well in his role and could expect a raise from his $1.25MM cap hit this season.
There is also the matter of pending RFA forward Kasperi Kapanen, who is coming off of a three-year, $9.6MM contract carrying a cap hit of $3.2MM. Although Kapanen has arguably not lived up to expectations, his 30 points in 68 games this season should be enough to command at least a similar cap hit going into next season. In an effort to alleviate some cap-issues, Pittsburgh could potentially choose to let Kapanen go.
Lastly, Pittsburgh will have to round out its roster, but is currently seeing forward Danton Heinen hitting RFA status and veteran forward Brian Boyle becoming a UFA. Pittsburgh holds Heinen’s rights as an RFA and could re-sign him to a similar cap hit as his current $1MM, and while Boyle could return on the same one-year, $750K contract he signed last offseason, the 37-year-old could choose retirement too.
One option for Pittsburgh to solve some of the cap crunch could be a possible trade of Zucker. The 30-year-old forward has seen his production drop off a bit in recent years and has faced several injuries in that time. With only one more year at $5.5MM, Zucker may not be difficult to move, but the Penguins will likely have to give up an asset to do so.
After looking at this Penguins’ offseason more in-depth, it’s not out of this world to think that the organization could bring back the same roster it has now, as long as the front office is able to do a good job of keeping salaries in-line with comparable players, and especially if they can work out somewhat lighter cap hits with Malkin and Letang. Further, letting go of Kapanen or trading Zucker and his $5.5MM cap hit could go a long way to solving some of their cap concerns. While the Penguins do have cap concerns, their problems are far from unsolvable, but to maintain a comfortable cap situation, some difficult conversations may have to come first.