Pittsburgh Penguins Best and Worst Free Agent Signings

pittsburgh penguins free agent signings

Welcome to Last Word on Hockey’s 2022 summer series, exploring the best and worst free agent signings for each NHL team of the post-lockout, salary cap era. With this past offseason seeing some big splashes (and potential gambles) like Johnny GaudreauClaude GirouxJohn Klingberg, and others, it’s time to take a look at how teams have boosted and stunted their progress in recent history. Today, we take a look at the Pittsburgh Penguins free agent signings history.

Pittsburgh Penguins Free Agent Hits and Misses

Best Signing: Sergei Gonchar

In August 2005, just after Sidney Crosby was drafted and the lockout had ended, Sergei Gonchar signed his first cap-era contract. Lasting five years and carrying a $5 million AAV, plus a full no-trade clause. It would prove to be a deal worth every cent.

The Russian immediately became a hit in Pittsburgh, racking up a huge 259 points in 322 games as a defenceman. Although he never won the Norris Trophy as the best in his position, he finished fourth in 2007-08. He would also help lead the Penguins to the 2009 Stanley Cup.

In the locker room, he provided invaluable leadership. He paved the way for Kris Letang to become the elite defenceman he is today and even took a young Evgeni Malkin into his home to help him settle in the USA.

It is fair to say that he was an essential part of the Penguins starting their cap-era dominance.

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Honourable Mention: Conor Sheary

After a strong collegiate career at UMass-Amherst, the undrafted Conor Sheary found himself signed by Pittsburgh as a college free agent. Initially, he was assigned to Wilkes Barre-Scranton in the AHL and had an excellent rookie professional year.

The Massachusetts native made the jump to the NHL during the 2015-16 season. He split his time between the Baby Pens and the big team, quietly providing good NHL depth and earning a Stanley Cup ring for his efforts.

However, the following season Sheary gave fans and Pittsburgh’s front office an unexpected surprise. The forward managed a career-high 53 points in 61 games. This time he was a key part of the team’s run to a repeat Stanley Cup win, truly cementing his cult hero status. 

Sheary isn’t an obvious candidate, especially as his production fell off during his final season. However, the diminutive winger will always be a fan favourite in the ‘burgh and his low-budget contracts made him wonderful value for money.

Worst Signing: Jack Johnson

In free agency of 2018, the Penguins agreed to a deal with Jack Johnson. The contract was surprisingly huge for a player of Johnson’s standing; five years long and carried a $3.25 million AAV.

To maybe only then-general manager Jim Rutherford’s surprise, that contract aged like milk. Throughout his first season, he suited up for each game but scored just 13 points and his play was difficult to watch.

He was a healthy scratch in the first game of the Penguins’ first-round playoff exit that year and his poor form continued into the 2019-20 season. Only 11 points in 67 games was an improvement in scoring but was still unacceptable considering his cap hit.

In the end, the writing was on the wall for both sides. Rutherford acquired the younger and more productive Mike Matheson, meaning Johnson now had to make way. However, with that contract, a buyout of the three remaining years was required. Overall, an experience the Penguins do not want to go through again.

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Honourable Mention: Zigmund “Ziggy” Palffy

Ziggy Palffy came to Pittsburgh under lofty expectations. A prolific goalscorer, he had split 10 seasons in the NHL with the New York Islanders and Los Angeles Kings, half of which saw him score 80 points or more.

When free agency called the Penguins opted to award Palffy a three-year deal, worth $13.5 million. Initially, the Slovak delivered but after just 42 games – in which he had already notched 42 points – he suddenly retired.

Palffy claimed a shoulder injury was the reason for his decision. However, he promptly returned to the Slovakian league the following season and showed he had not lost his scoring ability.

For the Penguins, this is definitely a ‘what could have been’ signing and is a cause of huge frustration. Had he stayed the full term of the deal, the forward’s high-scoring touch could have potentially resulted in a Stanley Cup win in 2008. Instead, fans were left with a heartbreaking loss to Detroit and wondering ‘what if?’.

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