Last week, the Chicago Blackhawks hoisted their third Stanley Cup in the past six seasons and now the real fun can begin. It ?s time to pack up everything from the 2014-2015 season and reorganize, resell, or replace as needed. This will begin at the entry draft June 26-27, 2015. There will undoubtedly be a handful of trades on draft day and leading up to July 1 when free agency will open. A few more will probably trickle in before the rosters will be set for the 2015-2016 season. So let ?s get ready. Here ?s everything important you need to know, concerning the Penguins, going into the real off-season:
There are two major types of free agents in the NHL (there are actually six classes of players broken down in the collective bargaining agreement, but we only need to focus on two, really): restricted free agents (RFA) and unrestricted (UFA). RFA’s (see: Bennett comma Beau) are any NHL players who are no longer an entry-level player, but are not yet unrestricted free agents. Unrestricted free agents (see: Martin comma Paul) are any players over the age of 27 or one who has played seven seasons in the NHL. The difference is simply what the team gets should that player depart from them. RFA’s are not required to sign with their current teams any more than UFA’s, they can be ?offer sheeted ? by anyone and sign that offer like a contract. However, the team in question may match the offer made to keep their own asset. If not, they receive draft pick compensation.
Pending UFA’s for the Penguins include: Craig Adams, Blake Comeau, Steve Downie, Christian Ehrhoff, Thomas Greiss, Maxim Lapierre, Paul Martin and Daniel Winnik.
Pending RFA ?s include: Beau Bennett and Ian Cole.
The Penguins have shown little to no interest in bringing back any of their departing UFA’s with the exception of Paul Martin. Martin is someone it is believed the team would love to keep, but will probably sign for money the Penguins can ?t offer.
The RFA’s are where it gets interesting. The Penguins and Ian Cole have already had news of their talks trickle out, while the front seems to be mum on oft-injured but highly talented Beau Bennett.
What could that mean? Well, it could mean Bennett and the Pens simply haven ?t had talks, it could mean they already know what the other wants and when the time comes it ?s going to be easy. Or it could mean the opposite. Bennett, who hasn ?t been a bust but certainly hasn ?t been the player they hoped for when he was drafted, could see himself in another uniform next season. Whether that ?s through an offer sheet or a trade is anyone ?s guess at this point, but the team has taken a try-try again approach with him for a few years now and it ?s almost a question of when will they say there ?s just not a fit there.
The Penguins do not have many picks in the draft this year, but that doesn ?t mean they won ?t make a splash. With their need for top-6 wingers and a few guys they wouldn ?t mind parting with, it would not shock anyone to see them make a draft-day move for the third time in four years.
Ideally, they ?d like to get either a first-round selection or an NHL forward in any draft-day move but I’m sure they won’t rule anything out in their current “rearranging” mindset.
The club does have a choice in the second round and, like last season, should use their first pick (46nd overall, round 2) on a forward. A great option for this pick is massive Swedish winger Jens Looke. Looke is 6 ?5 ? and played part of last season with newly-signed Niclas Anders n in the Swedish League among men. He is one of the more underrated forwards in this draft with few paying much attention to him until World Juniors in January. He has offensive talent and plays all 200 feet, but especially well around the net and has quick feet and hands to misdirect defenders. No matter who they choose, the team should and will likely focus on the forward position, namely the wings, with their five selections in the draft. With a new coach, Mike Sullivan, behind the bench of the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins who specializes in forwards this is a perfect storm to develop talent at the organization’s weakest position.
Wingers for Sid and Geno?
If you feel like you ?ve heard this story before, it ?s because you have. When you have two highly talented centers and middling-to-mediocre wingers you will get above average but not fantastic results. This is why it ?s time for the Penguins to make their move. That move is to acquire wings for their stars. Malkin could use one winger who will finish off his pretty plays and another who will draw attention from his massive frame. Crosby could use someone fast to compliment his and Patric Hornqvist’s play (and no the answer is not Chris Kunitz).
Whatever road they take, the Penguins will get younger and faster on the wings and watching a guy like Chris Kunitz and Brandon Sutter depart is looking more and more inevitable every day. Also, look for David Perron to be seen as part of the solution. As anyone can recall, when James Neal first came to the Penguins he was hardly setting the world on fire. However, once he had a team camp under his belt and some time to settle he seemed to improve massively. It will be interesting to see Perron in this same situation and a similar uptick in scoring could be imminent.
General Manager Jim Rutherford has made it clear he is allowed to use his buyouts. That doesn ?t necessarily mean he will though. As a refresher, there are no more compliance buyouts. The ability to use those expired last off-season; any buyout now will keep the cap hit, but stretch it over the course of double the contract length. In the case of Rob Scuderi, for example, his $3.375M cap hit for the next two years would be $1.6875M for the next four years, if the buyout is used. His cap hit, now $1.6875M, would still count against the official cap.
If anyone can be found to buy one of the contracts the Penguins are hoping to move, they will trade over buyout every time. Expect Rutherford to make every effort to acquire someone in exchange for Rob Scuderi. With a salary cap there is a cap ceiling but there is also a cap floor and some teams will need heavier contracts just to get to the floor. This is where a real deal could be made.
Rutherford knows 87 and 71 aren ?t getting younger. Neither are 29 or 58. It ?s time to make the team around them younger. Don ?t look for them to chase after expensive free agents or trades for players farther along in their careers. This team has its veteran presence in the form of its Triple-Gold Captain Crosby, Six-time World Championship Medalist Malkin, Stanley Cup winning netminder, and stroke surviving Norris-nominated defenseman.
Guys like Soderberg, Gonchar and Kennedy may sound like great additions but won ?t be first targets. Unless it is a specific player one of the core four has played with previously, or a real steal, any elder statesman signed will be a last resort.
The Bottom Line
For the second season in a row don ?t expect much from last season to carry on into next year. This team has seen what rolling four lines successfully looks like and has decided to give their youth the greenlight. Expect guys like Wilson and Kapanen over Downie and Comeau in 2015-2016.
Perhaps, though, the best tip for this off-season as it relates to the local NHL club? Expect the unexpected.