As the NHL moves ahead with its Return to Play plan, Last Word on Hockey is taking a look towards the offseason. In terms of building a franchise, the offseason is the most crucial time of the year for front offices. However, due to COVID-19, the short-term future of how this operates has seen sweeping changes. How teams respond to a multitude of changes this fall remains to be seen. This series attempts to examine what choices teams may have to make.
The second batch of Offseason Primers will feature Metropolitan Division squads. Today’s edition delves into the possibilities surrounding the Pittsburgh Penguins offseason.
Pittsburgh Penguins Offseason Primer
Pending Free Agents
This fall will be critical for general manager Jim Rutherford and the rest of the Penguins gang. Pittsburgh is a team teetering on the edge of decline and will look to do everything they can to maintain their champion status. They’ll have to put in overtime, however. Their pending free agent list is extensive. In terms of the veterans, their unrestricted free agents include Justin Schultz, Conor Sheary, Patrick Marleau, Kevin Roy, and Phil Varone. Adam Johnson, Thomas DiPauli, and Riley Barber are Group Six UFAs.
Pittsburgh’s got a lot of youngsters up for new deals, too. Restricted free agents eligible for arbitration are Matt Murray, Evan Rodrigues, Jared McCann, Juuso Riikola, Anthony Angello, Sam Lafferty, Dominik Simon, Tristan Jarry, and John Nyberg. Their non-arbitration-eligible RFAs are Graham Knott and Sam Miletic.
Salary Cap Outlook
The Penguins aren’t facing an extreme cap crunch, but will definitely fly a little close to the sun this offseason. With all that talent to retain, Rutherford and his crew will need to crunch the numbers daily in order to ensure everyone fits under the flat salary cap. Via the team’s CapFriendly site, the team has $13.22 million in cap headroom for the 2020-21 season.
After an incredible breakout first season in Pittsburgh back in 2016-17, Schultz just hasn’t been the same player he was. His point totals have dropped every year in Pittsburgh while dealing with constant injury troubles along the way. 51 points turned into 27, 27 turned into 15, and 15 turned into just 12 points this season.
He’s been replaced internally by the emergence of young John Marino. Schultz now forms a subpar third pair with Jack Johnson, despite making over $5 million a season. Schultz purely doesn’t have a logical fit with the Penguins anymore, and his injury history doesn’t make him an attractive candidate to re-sign. He’s likely played his last regular-season game in Pittsburgh.
Five years and two championships later, Murray has appeared to overstay his welcome in Pittsburgh. His numbers saw a stark drop this season, posting a sub-.900 save percentage for the first time in his career. With a subpar record of 20-11-5 to boot, he was supplanted in goal by all-star Tristan Jarry.
Murray would also create expansion draft problems for Pittsburgh down the road. Pittsburgh has the ability to trade Murray’s negotiation rights now and get assets in return, instead of potentially losing him to the Seattle Kraken for nothing. While he’s given a lot to the city of Pittsburgh, his relationship with the team and city has soured. It’s time for Murray to move on.
While he isn’t a superstar, Sheary has developed immaculate chemistry with Crosby and factors in the long-term with the squad. Evolving-Hockey’s contract projection tool (subscription required) projects that Sheary will receive a four-year deal. It projects a cap hit of $3.53 million per season, which leaves Pittsburgh with $9.69 million.
After being acquired from the Florida Panthers last season, McCann has developed into a quality third-line centre. He helps supply Pittsburgh with some of the best centre depth in the league. Posting 35 points in 66 games this year, McCann is also sound defensively. He’s also still young, being only 23 years old.
Cheap and effective is the name of the game for contending teams, and McCann is absolutely perfect for the Penguins’ roster. He’s projected, via Evolving-Hockey, to receive a two-year deal worth $3.21 million a year. It leaves Pittsburgh with $6.48 million in cap space.
Lastly, Pittsburgh needs to retain their starting goalie for next season. Jarry’s breakout season saw him post a stellar .921 save percentage and 20 wins. While he’s relatively unproven at the NHL level, Jarry will still definitely receive a raise.
It won’t be long-term, considering his lack of experience. A one or two-year deal seems most likely. Looking at past comparables, Jordan Binnington is a good fit. However, he’s even less proven than Jordan and will likely receive less of a payday. $2.5 million seems like a fair number, bringing Pittsburgh’s cap space down to $3.98 million.
Potential Free Agent Additions
While Murray will be leaving, Pittsburgh doesn’t need to add in the backup goalie department considering Casey DeSmith‘s NHL experience. However, they could use another defenceman to fill out the bottom two pairings.
One name that jumps out as a great fit is Dylan DeMelo. He’d likely cost the team under $3 million, so he’s in their range. His game has also taken multiple steps forward in the past few seasons, making him a valuable commodity that would certainly help Johnson along on the third pairing.
Small moves all around for Pittsburgh Penguins this offseason, but it helps them stay at the top of the Metropolitan Division for one more year.
Check out the other Offseason Primers for the Metropolitan Division:
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