In the past few weeks, the Penguins have lost several members of the team that just completed back-to-back Stanley Cup Championships. Marc-Andre Fleury was taken in the expansion draft by the Vegas Golden Knights. Chris Kunitz signed a one-year, $2 million contract with Tampa Bay. Nick Bonino signed a four-year, $16.4 million contract with Nashville. Trevor Daley signed a three-year, $9.5 million contract with Detroit. Ron Hainsey signed a two-year, $6 million contract with Toronto. Even spare defensemen Cameron Gaunce and David Warsofsky signed modest contracts with Columbus and Colorado, respectively. They may lose Matt Cullen to retirement and they just recently lost Rick Tocchet to the Arizona Coyotes, where he will become their next head coach.
The moral of the story is that when your team wins back-to-back Stanley Cup championships, every other team in the NHL will covet your players and staff. However, with every exiting player referenced above, the Penguins made the right move by letting them go. The Penguins ? hands were tied with Fleury, but having over $9 million tied up in two goaltenders was not an option, plus the team had to lose one player in the expansion draft. Make no mistake, Fleury cannot be easily replaced, but the Penguins did sign a former Stanley Cup champion, Antti Niemi, to a very cap-friendly one-year, $700K contract, to back-up Matt Murray. Kunitz can be replaced with a younger, cheaper option such as Zach Aston-Reese. Kunitz only had nine goals last season. The recently acquired Ryan Reaves had seven, getting much less ice time than Kunitz.
Daley and Hainsey have been replaced by signing Matt Hunwick and re-upping with Chad Ruhwedel. Nick Bonino has not been replaced yet, but you can bet that GM Jim Rutherford is weighing all his options. Whether it be via trade or free agency, Rutherford will likely fill that void by the time training camp begins. If Cullen retires, then Carter Rowney slides into a fourth-line center role. If Cullen comes back, it will likely be for the same one-year, $1 million contract that he had last season. Options to take the 3rd center role include Toronto Maple Leaf players Tyler Bozak ($4.2M/year, 1 year) and Nazem Kadri ($4.5M/year, 5 years), as the Leafs are currently over the salary cap without Long Term Injured Reserve available to dump Horton and Lupul.
Replacing Tocchet will not be an easy task. He has been integral to the Penguins ? success over the past two seasons, in particular with Phil Kessel and the power play. Mark Recchi has been promoted from his player development role to assistant coach and will assume most of Tocchet’s duties. Additionally, the Penguins also promoted Sergei Gonchar to an assistant coach role, primarily to work with defensemen.
There is a viable candidate available in former Penguin Joe Mullen to backfill for both Recchi and Gonchar. Mullen, an assistant coach with the Flyers since 2007 mainly in charge of running their power play, was let go at season ?s end. It was a rather odd decision given the Flyers ? history of power play success under Mullen. In fact, the Flyers ? power play in 2016-17 was one of the best shot and chance creation power plays in the league. It ranked second in the NHL with 101.70 shot attempts per 60 minutes at 5-on-4, first in unblocked shot attempts and shots on goal per 60 minutes, and third in Expected Goals For per 60 minutes.
For Penguins fans, it is tough to see fan favorites like Fleury, Kunitz, and Bonino leave; however, Rutherford is doing exactly what needed to be done. The NHL is a young man ?s league now, based on speed. With all apologies to Matt Cullen, the top stars in the NHL are now teenagers, barely old enough to vote. Connor McDavid is 20, Auston Matthews is 19, and Patrik Laine is 18. Meanwhile, players like Shane Doan, Jarome Iginla, and even Jaromir Jagr still sit unsigned. Rutherford clearly recognizes this trend and plans to fill out his roster with the likes of Rowney, Aston-Reese, Daniel Sprong, and the already proven Jake Guentzel. Consider that the combined age of the four players just mentioned is 91. The combined age of the exited Kunitz, Hainsey, Bonino, and Daley is 133. That is a difference of 42 years.
It is hard to not believe in what Rutherford has done in captaining the Penguins ship to back-to-back Stanley Cup Stanley Cup championships. While the Penguins roster for next season is far from solidified, you can bet that each move Rutherford makes will be calculated, based on a need, and not have long-term salary cap implications. The moves he has made so far this offseason should instill nothing but confidence that the Penguins will be well-positioned to compete for an unprecedented third-consecutive Stanley Cup in the salary cap era.