Pittsburgh Penguins: free-agency needs

What free-agents will GM Jim Rutherford sign this summer?

What free-agents will GM Jim Rutherford sign this summer?

While the Pittsburgh Penguins GM has ended, many have already started looking ahead towards the draft and free agency. This off-season comes at a critical junction for the Pens.  After another playoff meltdown, Pittsburgh is about to embark on a period  of serious re-construction, both on the ice and in the front office. The Pens will most definitely try and move a few key pieces via trade, and will also look to bolster their depth charts with an NHL-ready forward at this years draft (their first first-round pick since 2012). That still elves one key option for the Pens to explore: free agency. If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a hundred times: bolstering forward depth on the bottom six, on wing in particular, is priority number one this off-season, and I’d be willing to bet that the Penguins go hard after some of the big-name free agent forwards in the off-season. Many are calling for another over-haul of Pittsburgh’s blue-line, and advocating for free-agent defenseman Matt Niskanen to be re-signed as soon as possible. Niskanen is coming off of a career year, and would be a solid 4th or 5th defenseman in Pittsburgh’s system.  However therein lies the problem: at best, Nisky is a bottom-pairing defensman who is due to get a raise well-above what is role would be with the Penguins going forward. Reports have differed slightly on the exact numbers of Niskanen’s new contract, however most are putting the new deal somewhere in the five-year, $25-30 million dollar range. Niskanen was invaluable for Pittsburgh this season, however paying $30 million for 4-5 talent is not a smart business decision, especially when the Pens have so many younger, cheaper options ready to come up from the AHL. The same could be said for UFA forward Jussi Jokinen.  The 31 year-old Finn had a bounce-back year playing with Evgeni Malkin and James Neal, and as seen as a somewhat cheaper alternative to free-agent forwards like Matt Moulson or Tomas Vanek. Jokinen has top-six potential if slotted with a talented centerman like Malkin.  I’d like to see Pittsburgh re-sign Jokinen if they could, however I wouldn’t pay more than $3 million a year for him.  Should Jokinen choose to test free agency, he could also command between $4.5-5 million a years as well. So with only seven forwards currently under contract, the Penguins have their work cut out for them.  Not only do they need to sign basically their entire bottom-six, they need to replace them with talent that will at least be half way suitable. In his inaugural press conference yesterday, General manager Jim Rutherford called out Pittsburgh’s lack of depth. “We have two or three guys on the fourth line who were double-digit negatives in plus/minus.  We can’t have that,” Rutherford said. This, combined with Rutherford’s increased use of analytics likely means the end of the line for several Penguins forwards, including Tanner Glass and Joe Vitale. Just how bad was Pittsburgh’s bottom six last season?  Well, the trio of Glass, Vitale, and Craig Adams combined for just 11 goals and a -25 rating during the regular season, with Craig Adams somehow playing in all 82 games. If the Pens are to have any chance of becoming a legitimate Cup-contender, finding depth guys that can kill penalties, possess the puck, and also contribute offensively is of the utmost importance.  What they have now isn’t working, and it has to be fixed. Free agency could either be an extremely exciting or an extremely quiet part of Pittsburgh’s off-season, and with so much still unknown, it’s hard to say what free agents, if any, Pittsburgh will pursue this summer. Sure, there have been names floated out there all year.  Guys like Matt Moulson, Ryan Callahan, and Mike Cammalleri have all been in mentioned as possible targets. However with so many spots left to fill, the chances of the Pens antying up and throwing a lot of money at one guy aren’t very high.  That said, there are still a lot of relatively cheap options if the Penguins are able to supplement their depth via trades.