The Pittsburgh Penguins have gotten themselves into a royal mess.
Another playoff flameout has cost General Manager Ray Shero his job, and head coach Dan Bylsma’s future remains uncertain.
Big changes have come, however Shero is just the tip of the iceberg. The 2014-2015 Penguins roster will be dramatically different than the one that preceded it. But who should return, and who should be gone?
I’ve written a little bit about the Penguins pending UFA class here if you’d like to read a little more in-depth about free agency.
If not the short version is basically this: With the exception of maybe winger Jussi Jokinen, the Penguins will not and should not re-sign any of their unrestricted free-agents. If they can get Jokinen at under four million per on a two or three year deal, do it.
However he is coming off of one of his best seasons in recent memory and could command up to five million a year if he tests the market, which he almost certainly will. Center Brandon Sutter is a restricted free agent, who will also be re-signed. Same goes for defensive prospect Simon Despres.
Now, onto the fun stuff.
According to CapGeek.com, the Penguins have almost $16 million in cap space going into the off-season. Normally this is a good thing, however when you look at where that money is committed, it’s pretty clear that the Penguins have some work to do.
Pittsburgh’s top line of Sidney Crosby, Chris Kunitz, and Pascal Dupuis are all locked up long-term, as are Evgeni Malkin and winger James Neal. Beau Bennett has one year left on an entry level deal, as does Craig Adams. Other than Adams, Pittsburgh’s bottom six is wide open.
On the blue line, only UFA’s Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen are not locked up, and with blue-chip prospects like Derrick Pouliot and Scott Harrington possibilities for next season, the Pens have an opportunity to sure up their blue line and, do it on the cheap. If Harrington, Pouliot, Olli Maatta and Simon Despres all play for Pittsburgh next season, the Pens would have four of their six defenseman on entry-level or extremely cheap deals.
Trading Rob Scuderi would free up nearly $4 million in cap space as well, but at 36 and coming off of an dreadful season, finding a trade partner for Scuderi could be Pittsburgh’s biggest challenge yet.
And with this year’s crop of UFA forwards not particularly strong, trades might be Pittsburgh’s best option of improving their dreadful bottom six.
So who, if anyone, will be traded? In short, anyone not named Malkin, Crosby, Fleury or Maatta should be on the table.
Yes, Pittsburgh has an elite top six but their playoff failures the past five years have done little to inspire confidence in them anymore going forward. A change is needed, and what better way to shake things up than by trading one of your better players.
If I had to put money on it, I would say James Neal will more likely than not be somewhere other than Pittsburgh at the start of next season.
He’s one of the best pure snipers in the game who can pot 20 goals on his own, and if you put him on a line with an elite centerman he’s got 40-goal potential.
His chemistry with Malkin is obvious, however he has a penchant for taking dumb penalties and has a dirty streak that grows more every time he steps on the ice. Combine this with his injury history, and Neal’s presence often hurts the Penguins more than it helps them.
Neal being dealt would likely mean Bennett stepping up and taking his spot on Malkin’s right-wing. Bennett was a highly touted draft pick in 2011, however he has missed huge chunks of time with a slew of different injuries, and when he is healthy he has failed to perform on a consistent level.
Hopefully 2014 will be an injury-free season for Beau Bennett, and he will be able to step up and replace Neal in the event of a trade. If not, Bennett will join Angelo Esposito on the list of biggest Penguins draft busts of all time.
In return, Pittsburgh is hoping to net some bottom-six talent that can take some of the pressure off of the Crosby and Malkin lines. They need forwards, wingers in particular.
As far as the top-six goes, the never-ending quest for a winger to play with Sidney Crosby continues. If Pascal Dupuis comes back healthy in 2014, the Pens may be better suited to drop him down to the third line to play with center Brandon Sutter, leaving whoever becomes the Penguins GM to swing a deal and net Sid a right-wing.
Paul Martin was arguably Pittsburgh’s best bluer-liner in the playoffs, and it’s almost inconceivable to think about trading him, however now may be the perfect opportunity. Selling high on Martin could net the Pens a significant bundle of players in return, and with the aforementioned Pouliot and Harrington ready to come up, losing Martin would not be the end of the world.
It’s anyone’s guess as to what will actually happen this summer, but it goes without saying that some big changes are coming.