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Penguins Poised to Remain Competitive

Jake Guentzel’s recent extension shows the Pens are committed to remaining competitive in the near future.
Photo by Eric Hartline/USA Today Sports

The Pittsburgh Penguins recently took a big step towards remaining competitive for the next half decade when they signed Jake Guentzel to a five-year contract. The deal begins with the 2019-20 season and runs through the 2023-24 campaign, carrying an average annual value of $6 million.

Guentzel, 24, has been one of the Penguins ? top offensive performers since joining the club on a full-time basis midway through the 2016-17 season. He has produced consistently during the regular season, but has saved his best work for the Penguins ? biggest games. During the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Guentzel led all NHL players in postseason goals with 13, the second-most ever by a rookie in league history. His 21 points tied the NHL rookie record, while his five game-winners set a new NHL rookie mark.

Although the Penguins did not three-peat last season, Guentzel was on an even more torrid pace during last spring ?s playoffs, scoring 10 goals and totaling 21 points in only 12 playoff games. Despite playing just two rounds, he ended up fourth among all skaters in goals, and tied for fifth in points. Guentzel joined Pens owner Mario Lemieux as the only players in NHL history to reach double digits in goals in each of their first two playoff runs. Despite only having played in two playoff runs, Guentzel ?s 23 goals are tied for seventh-most in Penguins ? postseason history, and his 42 points are 13th. Among all NHL players during that span, Guentzel ?s goal total ranks first, while his point total is only exceeded by linemate Sidney Crosby (48).

It was important for the Penguins to lock up their most talented young player to a long-term deal. Consider that by the end of Guentzel ?s deal he will be 30, but Crosby will be 37, Evgeni Malkin will be 38, and Kris Letang will be 37. There ?s the possibility that Malkin and Letang won ?t even be on the team when Guentzel ?s contract expires since their current contracts end at the conclusion of the 2021-22 season. Amazingly, Crosby ?s contract, at $8.7 million per season, doesn ?t expire until the end of the 2024-25 season; the season after Guentzel ?s new contract expires. Guentzel joins Bryan Rust, 26, as part of the core of younger forwards that are now locked up to long-term contracts. Rust is signed through the 2021-22 season at an average salary of $3.5 million.

With Guentzel and Rust locked up, the Penguins will likely turn their attention to signing Zach Aston-Reese to a longer-term deal since his entry-level contract expires at the end of this season. Aston-Reese, 24, has shown his versatility in being able to slide up and down the lineup, similar to Rust. While he ?s played in a mostly fourth line role with the Penguins, he does have a scoring touch that could be depended upon in future seasons. During his senior season at Northeastern University, he led the nation is scoring with 31 goals and finished in a three-way tie for most total points in the NCAA with 63 points in just 38 games. Aston-Reese will be a restricted free agent, which means if another team wants to sign him they ?ll have to give up hefty compensatory draft picks to do so. Rounding out the young forwards, Dominik Simon will also be a restricted free agent after the 2019-20 season. He is very highly thought of within the organization and will likely be signed to a new contract that will look similar to the Rust contract in terms of length and, perhaps, a slightly lower cap hit.

On the back end, the Penguins have Letang, Jamie Oleksiak, Olli Maatta, Brian Dumoulin, and Jack Johnson all signed through at least the 2020-21 season. Juuso Riikola and Marcus Pettersson will both be restricted free agents at the end of this season and will surely both be offered new deals.

Lastly, the Penguins will look to lock up goaltender Matt Murray long-term. Murray ?s numbers and results speak for themselves and he ?ll surely be looking to get a longer and more lucrative contract than the three-year, $3.75 million per season deal that is set to expire at the end of next season. Like Aston-Reese, Riikola, and Pettersson, Murray will be a restricted free agent, so it is unlikely that the Penguins will have to contend with another team vying for Murray ?s services.

When looking at the big picture, the Penguins look poised to remain competitive for at least the next four or five seasons, which is remarkable for a team that has made the playoffs for 12 consecutive seasons. Once-elite teams like Detroit, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Chicago are going through various stages of rebuilding while the Penguins remain a top-ten team in the NHL. Only time will tell if the Penguins can remain elite, but signing players like Guentzel to long-term contracts certainly helps.

Professional sports writer, fluent in sarcasm and other humorous arts. Bachelor and Master degrees from Duquesne University. Member of the Professional Hockey Writers' Association. Have previously written for many outlets, including the AP, Sports Xchange, PA SportsTicker, etc. Regularly appear as a guest on local sports radio. Expert at Name That Tune and proficient in many other areas of useless knowledge.

4 Comments on Penguins Poised to Remain Competitive

  1. Vincent

    Thank you for your thoughful take. It is encouraging to see young players progress and become key contributors.

  2. Does locking up Guentzel, and the need to lock up Murray here in the near future, make the Pens’ top prospects and high-round draft picks the next few years more valuable to them rather than trading for upgrades at the deadline? As we saw with Iginla a few seasons back and Derek Brassard last year and this, not every big move yields the desired results, as the player may not be a good organizational fit or wasn’t worth the prospect/pick cost. Can the Pens afford to keep making these types of moves every year simply since it is expected of top contenders, especially with the contracts already on the books? Don’t they eventually have to start supplementing the core with young, homegrown players to mitigate the long-term deals that GMJR hands out like candy at Halloween (still don’t understand the Johnson signing, and I’m not certain that locking up Oleksiak was a bright idea) so that they don’t become the next Blackhawks or Kings?

    • Kevin Creagh // January 11, 2019 at 3:28 PM //

      This is a good question. My opinion is that Jim Rutherford, with orders from on high from Mario/Ron, is just going to ‘go all in’ every year he can. Because of his age, the presence of his stars, and a great market and supportive owner, he’s going to let the next GM deal with a very messy rebuild.

      I don’t believe the Pens have any high-impact prospects (top 6 guys, top 4 d-men) in the system anyway. This team is going to be very bad in 3 years, my personal prediction, and there will be bleak days. But if they can make 1 more run, it will continue to justify what has been an amazing run.

  3. Vince Comunale // January 11, 2019 at 3:35 PM //

    I think Rutherford is attempting to sign these young guys now with hopes they will remain competitive through the Crosby, Malkin, and Letang contracts. With Guentzel, Rust, Domoulin, Crosby, Malkin, and Letang signed for the next five seasons, there’s no reason this team can’t make the playoffs in all of those years. I do agree that it might be time to stop trading #1 picks and start building for beyond 2024, as absurd as that might sound as we sit here in 2019.

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