Next Friday, Thor: Ragnarok will be opening in theaters. It will detail the adventures of very powerful and magical Viking gods. For the past three years, the Penguins have had their own powerful Viking in the form of Patric Hornqvist.
Hornqvist came over in a deal with Nashville (along with Nick Spaling) for James Neal back in June 2014, one of Jim Rutherford’s first moves. Neal was an enigmatic sniper, but had personality quirks both on and off the ice. Hornqvist was not brought in to replace Neal’s 30+ goal potential. He was brought in to provide a solid net front presence and do dirty work. What wasn’t fully expected was how well Hornqvist would mesh with the rest of the locker room and become the key catalyst in their chemical reaction.
Every Penguin to a man says that Patric Hornqvist is vital to keeping the locker room loose with his infectious energy and love of the game. Hornqvist never stops, both on and off the ice. Ian Cole said it best in the warm afterglow of the Stanley Cup this past June — “His motor is going all the time. He is crazy, but in the best way possible. He is so intense, all the time.”
Hornqvist broke his hand during the Eastern Conference Final. Because he’s a warrior and a hockey player, he kept playing. In the summer, he needed to get surgery to repair the hand and his recovery stretched into the first couple of games of the season. When he returned against the Penguins’ bitter rivals, the Capitals, last week, he immediately did this:
Through his first seven games, Hornqvist has tallied 3 goals and 2 assists, while doing his best impression of an immovable redwood tree on the power play in front of the opponent’s net. In other words, business as usual.
Patric Hornqvist’s contract is up after this season. This is his age-31 season, but he clearly is showing no signs of slowing down. Hornqvist is on a $4.25M cap hit and Carl Hagelin is playing on a $4M cap hit this season. In a perfect world, their contract terms would be reversed, as Hagelin still has one more season after this one on his deal. Hagelin provides blinding speed, but his finishing skills have always been what has held him back from jumping to the next level. I would much rather see Hagelin’s contract expiring than Hornqvist’s.
It’s hard to be sure about anything in the world of sports and contracts, but I’m at least 93.7% sure that Hornqvist will be either extended by Rutherford during this season or re-signed in the summer. Team chemistry is impossible to quantify and it’s easy to have it when the team is winning, but Hornqvist is so beloved in the locker room that I think Rutherford will want to maintain harmony. Hornqvist would be highly sought after on the free agent market, but he loves it here in Pittsburgh. The fans love him, his teammates love him, his coaches love him. This isn’t like with Fleury where there’s a younger, cheaper replacement nipping at Hornqvist’s heels.
He’s on a $4.25M average annual value deal now. Even with his age heading into his early 30’s, he’s probably going to command $5M per year, similar to what 30-year old Matt Moulson signed for this past offseason. The Penguins are always flirting with the upper threshold of the salary cap and next season is no different. There will probably be a modest increase over the $75M cap, but not much, so let’s assume the Penguins just have the $13.4M of space they currently show. They need 8 players with that money. Some can hopefully be filled internally by the likes of Zach Aston-Reese, Daniel Sprong, and Tristan Jarry, but the Pens may need some maneuvers to get some free space if they want to maintain Hornqvist long term. Trading Carl Hagelin and his $4M hit is the most logical choice for me, as he’s the most superfluous winger they have on the roster.
It’s easy to get attached to players when the team is winning back-to-back Stanley Cups. Everyone wants all the players to stay together forever, but economics dictates that players will need to be moved along from time to time. But for me, Hornqvist is a guy I’d easily sign to a 4 year/$20M deal tomorrow and live with a potential decline down the road. His on and off ice contributions are that important to me.