With the Pittsburgh Penguins holding a 3-1 series lead over the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals, it’s seems kind of crazy to already be talking about the offseason.
However, given how the Penguins have flamed out in the playoffs in years past, it’s almost second nature for Pens fans to start talking about getting rid of guys before the season is even over.
Nonetheless, the Pens have some serious moves to consider this summer, and with the entire bottom-six up for restricted or unrestricted free agency, next year’s team could carry a radically different composition from the one we saw in 2014.
So who returns, and who leaves? Lets break it down by class.
Restricted Free Agents (RFA’S): Brandon Sutter, Simon Despres, Bobby Farnham, Jayson Megna, Phillip Samuelson, Harry Zolnierczyk.
With the exception of Brandon Sutter, everybody in the Penguins’ RFA class played the bulk of their games in Wilkes-Barre of the AHL, although Despres and Megna did see their fair share of time up with the big club.
Sutter is a no-brainer. Pittsburgh’s third-line center has been one of the team’s best forwards in the playoffs, and although he is coming off of a just-OK season, he is far and away Pittsburgh’s best option as a third-line pivot. Defensively sound and capable of scoring, Sutter carried a cap-hit of just over $2 million last season. I would expect him to get a slight raise, but nonetheless, Sutter will be back in a Penguins sweater next year.
As for the rest of the bunch, I would bet on the bulk of them being re-signed to minor league contracts.
Simon Despres is an interesting case. He has the skill and physicality to stay in the NHL, but rumors about his maturity and work-ethic have kept him in the minors for most of the year. If he is re-signed, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him be a part of any trades the Pens make in the off-season.
Unrestricted Free Agents (UFA’S): Deryk Engelland, Brian Gibbons, Tanner Glass, Brooks Orpik, Matt Niskanen, Jussi Jokinen, Taylor Pyatt, Lee Stempniak, Joe Vitale, Marcel Goc.
There’s about a dozen other minor-league players in this group as well, but for the sake of space, I’ll stick with this who saw significant time in Pittsburgh this season.
If I’m the GM of the Penguins, re-signing Jokinen is my number one free agent priority this summer. Jokinen played 81 games for Pittsburgh this year, and recorded 21 goals and 36 assists as the primary left-winger playing with Evgeni Malkin and James Neal.
At 31, Jokinen is beginning the back-nine of his career, however many still believe he still has a few years of good hockey left in him. And with the often injured Beau Bennett the only option as his replacement, a two or three year deal for Jokinen would serve the Penguins well.
Niskanen is the toughest decision out of the rest of the group. As is the case so many times in contract years, Niskanen had a career-best season for the Pens in 2014, and was arguably their most consistent and reliable defenseman amidst a slew of injuries.
He is due a big pay day, and a well-deserved one. The main question Pittsburgh faces is if one of their multitude of highly-touted defensive prospects is ready to make the jump to the big leagues like Olli Maatta did this season. If Scott Harrington or Derrick Pouliot are ready for the NHL, losing Nisky doesn’t hurt so much; if it turns out they need another year or two of seasoning, re-signing Niskanen is a must.
It’s going to cost them, but I’d re-sign him. Even if Pouliot or Harrington can play in the NHL, having Niskanen as mentor for the young kids could only benefit them in the long run, and with a couple of Pittsburgh’s more elder defenseman on the way out, Niskanen would be one of the few veterans remaining on the blue-line.
Which brings us to everyone else: Brooks Orpik, gone. Tanner Glass, gone, Deryk Engelland, gone.
Orpik has been in Pittsburgh longer than anyone, however time has caught up with him. He’s been in decline for years, with 2014 being his worst statistically in what seems like forever. Simply put, he’s been a liability more than an asset, and there’s too much young blood in the pipelines for Pittsburgh to keep a vet like Orpik around.
Glass was improved, however he is still one of the worst possession players in the entire NHL. There are better options to explore through free-agency than re-signing Glass, and Engelland, well, I think that goes without saying.
If Lee Stempniak can commit to playing on the the third line, he’s an option to consider, but, like Glass, there are certainly better options via free-agency.
This wouldn’t be a post about free agency and tares if I didn’t brig up Rob Scuderi.
I won’t re-hash anything I’ve said 50 times before, but Scuderi carries one of the worst contracts in the NHL. He can’t do what he was brought in to do, and it’s screwing up what other wise is a pretty decent defensive core.
They can’t buy him out, so a trade is really the only option. Even if it’s a blatant salary cap dump that nets only draft picks in return, even if the Penguins have to eat some of his salary, even if they have to give up a draft pick of their own as well, just get rid of him.
Easier said than done, of course, and quite honestly I don’t see it happening, as much as I’d like it too. Pittsburgh spent too much on him in the off-season to give up on him after one year, however time keeps ticking, and Scuderi’s already low ceiling is going to keep shrinking the older he gets.