With the offseason in full swing aside from the two teams in the Stanley Cup Final, it’s time to examine what each squad will need to accomplish over the coming months. Next up is a look at the Penguins.
Despite some key injuries in the playoffs, the Penguins nearly got past the Rangers in the opening round which gave GM Ron Hextall a tough choice to either run it back with this same core with Sidney Crosby still a high-end center or to start a rebuilding phase. Considering their stated intention is to keep their win-now window open, their summer checklist reflects that.
Get Goaltending Stability
Tristan Jarry was once viewed as Pittsburgh’s goalie of the future following a stellar junior career. When Matt Murray was traded to Ottawa two drafts ago, he became their goalie of the present. However, it’s now fair to wonder whether or not he’s their goalie of the future beyond next season. The 27-year-old is coming off a strong regular season that saw him post a GAA of 2.49 and a.919 SV% but 159 games into his NHL career, there are still some questions about whether or not he should be their long-term starter. If management is sold on Jarry, then working out a long-term extension with an AAV starting with a five would be worthwhile and that move can be made as of July 13th.
But what if they don’t feel that way or want to see what 2022-23 brings before making that type of commitment? That’s when things start to get a bit dicey. There is no Jarry-like prospect in the minors that’s a year or two away from being NHL-ready. There isn’t even an NHL-caliber backup under contract with Casey DeSmith set to become an unrestricted free agent this summer and journeyman Louis Domingue (their starter for most of the playoffs) also hitting the open market. In an ideal world, they would add a quality backup on a multi-year deal and give themselves a short-term upgrade at that second spot and a bit of longer-term stability.
Of course, an ideal world implies that they have the cap space to do this and accomplish their other summer objectives. 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 short-term low-cost deal might be all they can afford and if they head into next season with Jarry on an expiring deal and a short-term backup, that’s not an ideal situation to have for a very important position.
Keep Or Replace Veteran Stars
Now, let’s get to the obvious. Right now, Pittsburgh has over $23MM in cap space which sounds wonderful without context. That context is that two of their long-time veteran stars, center Evgeni Malkin and defenseman Kris Letang, will become unrestricted free agents next month. Accordingly, most (if not all) of their offseason 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 high-end NHL center and has averaged less than a point per game just once in the last decade. However, there’s one other key thing that has happened just once in the last decade and that’s the 36-year-old playing at least 70 games in a season. Malkin has had long run-ins with injury trouble and this past season was no exception which really complicates things from a valuation standpoint. When Malkin is in the lineup and producing at a point-per-game rate, his market value isn’t that far off from the $9.5MM AAV of his soon-to-expire contract. But since he can’t stay in the lineup consistently, it’s also a huge risk to give him that type of money. The only way the Penguins can make part of his pay based on staying healthy is with a one-year deal and Malkin has no reason to accept that as he can likely land a three-year or four-year commitment next month. While a pay cut is likely, it probably won’t be a substantial one.
Then there’s Letang. Over the last four seasons, only three blueliners have more points than the 35-year-old. The low-end in terms of AAV for those three players is $7.875MM (Victor Hedman who left money on the table to stay in Tampa Bay) and the high end is $9.059MM (Nashville’s Roman Josi). You can be sure that Letang’s representatives will be pointing that out in negotiations. Letang isn’t a stalwart defensive defender but he has killed penalties for the Penguins and while he has had injury issues of his own in the past, he has been healthier in recent years. While Pittsburgh would love to try to get Letang for less than his expiring $7.25MM cap hit, he could very easily get more if he gets to the open market. The length of the contract is a priority though so if the Penguins are willing to go with a longer deal than they might prefer, it should yield a lower AAV than he’d get otherwise.
Both players have been franchise stalwarts for the last 16 years but with everything else that Hextall needs to go this summer, it will be difficult to keep (or replace) both at market value and still have money left to fill their other needs. But with how important those two are, they’re certainly going to try to find a way to make it work.
Create Cap Flexibility
If Hextall is going to be able to keep both of his veteran stars, keep some of the other notable pending UFAs (including wingers Rickard Rakell and Evan Rodrigues), find a quality backup goalie, and leave some wiggle room for in-season movement, something has to give. Some tough decisions are going to need to be made on some impact players.
One of those is winger Kasperi Kapanen. The team has twice used a first-round pick on him, first to draft him and then another to re-acquire him back in 2020 but the return on their reinvestment wasn’t great in 2021-22. After an impressive shortened campaign, the 25-year-old struggled this past season, notching just 11 goals and 21 assists in 32 games while chipping in with three assists in their seven-game loss to the Rangers. That’s not a terrible return on a $3.2MM cap hit but it’s safe to say they were hoping for more. If they tender him a qualifying offer this summer (technically speaking, that offer is only worth $840K based on the structure of his expiring deal), Kapanen will be arbitration-eligible where his prior years could push his value closer to $4MM which is below the walkaway threshold. His trade value won’t be overly high because of this situation so a non-tender is a definite possibility. While that would create some extra flexibility, it’d also create another impact roster spot to be filled.
Then there’s Jason Zucker, another winger. Former Penguins GM Jim Rutherford paid a sizable price to bring him in as well but he hasn’t been able to play at the level he did with Minnesota. When he has been healthy (and that has been a struggle the last couple of seasons), he has been more of a secondary producer which isn’t great for someone with a $5.5MM price tag. A buyout would give them a little less than $3.5MM in cap space for next season while adding $1.733MM to 2023-24’s cap but also would create another spot to fill. Alternatively, a trade with some retention that yields 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 to get a team to take the contract in full. None of these are desirable but carrying him on the books next season could cost them the ability to retain a more impactful player.
There are also some candidates to move on the back end. Marcus Pettersson hasn’t lived up to his inflated contract, one that carries an AAV of just over $4MM for three more years. Flipping him for someone that makes less money is something that can be considered. John Marino ($4.4MM for five more years) has been in trade speculation going back to during the season and a similar idea could be done with him, especially if they’re able to bring Letang back. It’s unlikely they can clear the full contracts but moving one of them could give them a little more financial flexibility. Even with $23MM in cap room for the time being, the Penguins certainly are going to need all the financial flexibility they can get.
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images. Contract information courtesy of CapFriendly.