The offseason has arrived for all but a few teams. It’s now time to examine what those clubs need to accomplish over the coming months. It’s going to be a busy summer. What is on deck for the Pittsburgh Penguins?
The Pittsburgh Penguins finished first in what was arguably the best division in the NHL this season. The East boasted the likes of the Washington Capitals, Boston Bruins, New York Islanders, and even the New York Rangers, the best team not to make the playoffs. Yet, Pittsburgh finished with 77 points for the fifth-best record in the league despite stiff competition. It seemed like Sidney Crosby and company were primed for another deep playoff run this season. Instead, it all came crashing down quickly in a first-round loss to the Islanders in which Pittsburgh could not counter New York’s smothering approach. The Penguins’ weaknesses were exposed in the postseason and must be addressed in the offseason, but the team currently lacks the flexibility to do much of anything.
The Penguins cannot start adding until they do some subtracting. Pittsburgh is currently pegged to have just $3.2MM in salary cap space heading into the off-season, a projection that includes just 19 contracts. Forget improving the roster, Pittsburgh needs to create cap space just to preserve their current roster, as key restricted free agents Teddy Blueger and Zach Aston-Reese require new contract and the team will likely try to re-sign impending UFA defenseman Cody Ceci as well. Those three alone will cost well more than $3.2MM.
The Penguins could actually receive some help from the Expansion Draft – if they are lucky. Pittsburgh is likely to expose both forward Jason Zucker and defenseman Marcus Pettersson in expansion; the pair are talented players, but underperformed in 2020-21, especially relative to their substantial contracts. Either player would be a loss for the team, but the added cap space would more than make up for the departure.
If the Seattle Kraken instead grab Aston-Reese, Blueger, or Jeff Carter, the Penguins will be in trouble. Even if the pick is Zucker or Pettersson, new GM Ron Hextall will still likely work the phones in an effort to move some salary. Again, Zucker and Pettersson are both good players and the Penguins will not just give them away, but they could be had for a bargain price this summer as Pittsburgh is desperate to shed salary.
Add a Goaltender
What will the Penguins do if they can open up cap space? Hextall, a former goalie himself, has already hinted that adding a veteran netminder is a priority for Pittsburgh this offseason. It is difficult to look at the team’s postseason collapse and not attribute much of the blame to starter Tristan Jarry. The young keeper followed up a stellar 2019-20 season with a decent regular season this year, but he struggled greatly in the postseason and kept the Penguins out of several games. Backup Casey DeSmith actually outplayed Jarry this season, albeit in lesser games, but he himself is also streaky. More importantly, DeSmith is injury-prone and is not a reliable understudy to Jarry. The Penguins need a reliable veteran presence to push their young starter.
Of course, the popular prediction is going to be old friend Marc-Andre Fleury. The Vegas Golden Knights are also looking to shed salary and who better than Fleury, coming off an incredible season, to return to Pittsburgh to stabilize the net before he rides off into the sunset, retiring as Penguin. It all sounds great, but Pittsburgh taking on Fleury’s $7MM salary is an impossibility and Vegas retaining considerable salary, if any, is unlikely. A return for Fleury is probably not going to happen, but the shared history means it can’t be ruled out compeltely.
More reasonable targets include free agents Frederik Andersen, Jonathan Bernier, James Reimer, Antti Raanta, Jaroslav Halak or Devan Dubnyk. Even a young UFA like Linus Ullmark or Chris Driedger could see Pittsburgh as a good opportunity to win a starting role and prove they can be a top option. If the Penguins are lucky, the market may actually drive down the salary requirements if there are a number of goalies interested in a great situation to win games and have an open competition in net. While free agency seems like the more viable route, trade options will be numerous and the Expansion Draft could shake up the market. Anton Khudobin stands out as an ideal trade candidate.
Improve the Bottom Six
Another area where Hextall and company have been open about their desire to improve is in their forward corps. The Penguins have no problem scoring, but their two-way play up front was a major concern this season. For Pittsburgh to take a step forward and return to postseason success, they must become harder to play against. That starts with getting better defensive play and physical engagement from their forwards. Hextall has harped on the Penguins needing to be more physical and has talked about adding size and grit this off-season, but it’s more than that. Pittsburgh was poor on the penalty kill this season, did not block shorts (particularly at forward) and their issues at the face-off dot continued through the regular season and into the playoffs. In nearly all facets of defensive play, the Penguins must improve.
With that said, retaining the likes of Blueger and Aston-Reese through expansion, getting a full season of Carter, and getting a healthy season from Brandon Tanev is already a great start to improved bottom-six play. The roster does not need a complete overhaul to improve team defense. That doesn’t mean that they can’t add another impact player though. Mark Jankowski, Evan Rodrigues, and Colton Sceviour were not the answer this season and all three are on their way out of town. The Penguins need to use what little cap space they may have left after re-signing their key free agents and adding a goalie to add another veteran difference-maker to round out the bottom-six.
Decide the Future of Malkin and Letang
What is to become of the Penguins’ long-time core? Crosby is still as good as ever and still signed for several years, but Malkin and Letang are entering the final years of their current contracts. Malkin is coming off a down year by his standards and will spend all summer rehabbing from an injury. Letang continues to show signs of slow but steady decline and is not playing up to his $7.25MM price tag. Yet, both players are still major contributors to the team and franchise icons. The new administration has vowed to stick with them, but for how long? Do they enter the season on expiring contracts and deal with the repercussions? Do they sign them to extensions this summer despite the concerns? Do they trade one? Both? There are major questions that need answering about the veteran stars. The front office does not want to hurt themselves in the short-term by moving on too soon from either one, but they also don’t want to hamstring themselves long-term by throwing out new contracts that aren’t necessarily warranted. It’s a difficult decision and one that will weigh on the team this summer.