2021 Pittsburgh Penguins Offseason Primer

pittsburgh penguins offseason

As a shortened and hectic offseason approaches, Last Word on Hockey is looking ahead towards how teams will deal with the reality of a flat salary cap. 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. This series attempts to examine what choices teams may have to make. We’ll operate going from worst to best. Today’s piece focuses on the Pittsburgh Penguins offseason.

Pittsburgh Penguins Offseason Primer

The Penguins go into yet another fascinating offseason after bowing out in the first round of the playoffs for the third year in a row. It looked like this was going to be a deep playoff run, especially after Pittsburgh went up 2-1 in their first-round series against the New York Islanders. Goaltender Tristan Jarry had other ideas though as he single-handily cost them one of their best remaining chances at another title. Jarry finished with a .888 save percentage for the series, which wasn’t close to good enough. The Penguins were the overall better team in the series, especially when you look at shot attempts. scoring chances for, high-danger chances for, etc. Overall, it meant nothing and now general manager Ron Hextall will have to make a few tweaks to the team this offseason.

The best part for Pittsburgh going into this offseason is that most of their pieces are already in place. They have the elite centers, wingers, and a franchise defenseman. Hextall’s duty will be to bring in a piece or two to surround the core, plus upgrade the goalies as the Penguins surely can’t run Jarry and DeSmith back next season.

Pending Free Agents

Pittsburgh doesn’t have a lot of free agents this summer but the most notable one is Cody Ceci. He’s coming off a one-year $1.25M contract and he’ll be looking for a lot more going into free agency. He had one of the best seasons of his career and a big part of that was due to how he was deployed. Ceci got third-pairing minutes on a nightly basis and ate them alive. According to Natural Stat Trick, when he was on the ice at 5v5, the Penguins had over 59% of the actual goals. To make matters even better, Ceci was also on the ice for 64.2% of the high-danger goals at 5v5. He’s more than earned himself a payday on the open market.

The Rest

Outside of Ceci, the list of unrestricted free agents are small for this Pittsburgh Penguins offseason. That being said, the most important of them is Frederick Gaudreau. He was a revelation for Pittsburgh after being called up and has earned himself a spot in the lineup next season if he’s brought back. When he was on the ice at 5v5, Pittsburgh had nearly 53% of the shot attempts, as well as 57.3% of the scoring chances. He was a threat with the puck each time he came into the zone which led to him playing every game down the stretch and into the playoffs.

Colton Sceviour and Evan Rodrigues are the other UFA’s heading into the offseason. The former was healthy scratched by playoff time but Rodrigues was a solid depth player when he was playing. He appeared in 35 games and had seven goals and 14 points, which isn’t bad for someone making $700K. An honourable mention does have to go out to Mark Jankowski. He’s a restricted free agent going into next season and it’s unlikely he’ll be brought back due to his struggles. He finished the season with just four goals and 11 points in 45 games.

Salary Cap Outlook

As is the case every offseason, the Penguins are right up against the cap. According to CapFriendly, the Penguins have only $3.2M of cap space going into the summer. That may cause some people to panic, but they’re likely going to create more, especially if Seattle takes Jason Zucker. That would free up over $5M in cap, which will be much needed as there are some very important RFA’s to sign.

The Penguins could also create more cap space if they decided to deal one of Marcus Pettersson or Mike Matheson. It would free up over $4M in space and also allow Pierre-Olivier Joseph to play full-time. He showed enough in his sample size this past season that he’s ready to contribute on a nightly basis. If Pittsburgh wants to get even more creative, they could move out a goaltender, though that’s unlikely.

Major Likely Departures

Cody Ceci

With Ceci’s season detailed above, it’s highly unlikely that he returns to Pittsburgh for next season and beyond. He gambled on himself with that one-year deal and it more than paid off with how he played. It looked iffy to start, but after a few weeks, he was one of the Penguins’ best defensemen at both ends of the rink. He even helped Matheson settle in as he was also struggling out of the gate. Ceci will likely get a two or three-year deal on the open market for two or three million per season. Even with that happening, the Penguins already have his replacement ready. Chad Ruhwedel is more than capable of stepping into the lineup.

Major Likely Re-Signings

 Teddy Blueger

This one is pretty obvious, especially if he’s not picked in the expansion draft. Blueger had his best season yet with the Penguins as he finished with seven goals and 22 points in 43 games. He also was rock solid defensively as you can see here:

For even-strength defence, the more blue there is, the better the player is at defending those areas of the ice. He’ll likely come in at a two or three-year deal making close to $3M per season. With how he was this season, that would end up looking like close to market value.

Zach Aston-Reese

Aston-Reese very well may be the pick for Seattle but if he isn’t, this one is just as obvious. He’s never been known for his offence, but he still had nine goals and 15 points in 45 games this year. Defence has always been his specialty:

Finishing in the 100% percentile for even-strength defence is no easy slouch and this goes to show that he is the engine that makes his line with Blueger and Brandon Tanev go. If he’s still here after expansion, expect him to also get a shorter two or three-year deal.

Potential Free Agent Additions

Another goalie?

There likely won’t be a lot of new faces coming this Pittsburgh Penguins offseason, but that doesn’t mean they won’t bring in a couple. To start, they need to go out and get another goalie. Having a 1B calibre goalie to help Jarry would do wonders for him and make him actually earn the No. 1 job during the season. There’s plenty of these options available, ranging from Linus Ullmark, Petr Mrazek, Antti Raanta, to even Frederik Andersen. Ullmark may be the best option as he finished with a .917 save percentage with the Sabres this season. Granted, it was only in 20 games but he also was .915 in 34 games during the 2019-2020 season. If he’s fully healthy next season, he could put up even better numbers, especially with a better defensive structure in front of him.

More forward depth?

Pittsburgh also could go out and get a bottom-six winger, especially if they lose one in expansion. One option that makes a ton of sense is Joel Armia of the Montreal Canadiens. He fits the mould of wanting to get “bigger and tougher” as Hextall said after the season and he can also score. This season, he had seven goals and 14 points in 41 games but was also on the ice for 54.5% of the shot attempts at 5v5. The Canadiens also had 56.6% of the scoring chances while he was on the ice, as well as 65% of the high-danger goals for with Armia out there. He’s everything you want in a bottom-six winger.

How about a splash?

Now if they want to somehow go big-game hunting this Pittsburgh Penguins offseason, they could go after Blake Coleman. It would have to be after manoeuvring some cap space around, but this move makes too much sense. He’s the exact player that Hextall said he wanted to get after the season and also a type of player who isn’t available very often. It’s still probably going to be out of Pittsburgh’s price range, but this is a former 20 goal scorer who also plays outstanding defence. It would make the Penguins’ forward depth that much deeper.

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