The last cheers of the Stanley Cup parade have long faded from the Grant Street corridor. The offseason is here and with the Expansion Draft for Vegas happening on June 21st, it promises to be a much different and chaotic one than most observers are used to. Whether Marc-Andre Fleury gets picked in the Expansion Draft or traded to Vegas in a separate deal, it’s safe to say that he and his $5.75M cap hit are soon to be off the books.
Using the excellent resource of CapFriendly, that means the Penguins will have roughly $18M at their disposal this offseason to fill 6 roster spots and get up to 22 contracts. For purposes of this article, I’m assuming that Tristan Jarry and his $630K salary will be the backup, hence the net gain of $5.1M of cap space between Fleury and Jarry.
The Penguins currently have 10 forwards under contract for next year. If you re-sign their 3 restricted free agents of Sheary, Archibald, and Sundqvist, the Pens are set with their four lines and one reserve. That’s the theory and assumes that Jim Rutherford will a) not lose anyone else in the expansion draft, and b) not want to upgrade over a younger guy potentially. Here’s what the four lines could look like:
- 1st Line: Guentzel-Crosby-Sheary
- 2nd Line: Rust-Malkin-Kessel
- 3rd Line (The Swedish Line): Hagelin-Sundqvist-Hornqvist
- 4th Line: Wilson-Rowney-Kuhnhackl, with Archibald as a floater
Conversely, the Penguins have a little bit more work to do on defense. As of now, they only have 3 defensemen under contract in Letang, Maatta, and Cole. Two others are restricted free agents in Dumoulin and Schultz, so as long as one of these guys doesn’t get plucked in the Expansion Draft, they only need to procure a 6th defenseman and a floater defenseman until they are set. I wouldn’t mind if the Penguins re-signed unrestricted free agent Chad Ruhwedel as either the 6th or 7th guy. He was more than serviceable. Frank Corrado, obtained in the Eric Fehr salary dump trade, could function as the 7th guy on-call. What is clear to me is that Derrick Pouliot is no longer in the Penguins plans going forward. I’ll be very surprised if he remains in the organization over the summer, whether it’s through a trade or not opting to pick up his restricted free agent rights.
So the pairings on defense could look like this, whenever Letang is able to return to action:
- 1st Pairing: Letang-Dumoulin
- 2nd Pairing: Schultz-Cole
- 3rd Pairing: Maatta-Ruhwedel, with Corrado as a floater
Let’s try to rough in what each of the Penguins’ restricted free agents could command in terms of their average annual cap hit.
JOSH ARCHIBALD & OSKAR SUNDQVIST
I’m not going to spend a ton of time on these guys. Neither of them have established themselves yet, so I’m just assigning a ballpark number of $750,000 for each of them.
When trying to estimate contract in an arbitration or some other scenario where the player is not on the open market, it’s best to find a set of comparables to that player in recent history. CapFriendly also has a tool for this, too, in their Custom Comparables section under Tools.
The soon-to-be 27-year old Schultz had a breakout year after taking a very team-friendly 1 year deal from the Penguins last summer and betting on himself. It worked out well, as Schultz had his best year in the NHL with 12 goals, 39 assists (51 points) in 78 games. His defensive work even went up a notch, although he was a liability at times in the playoffs (especially against the Predators).
For his career, Schultz has 160 points in 344 games. After entering in some relevant data, CapFriendly spit out the following group of comparable players, which are pretty much all over the spectrum. Cody Franson and his $3.325M deal for 2 years caught my eye. Franson was pretty consistently a 30 point scorer on defense when he signed that deal, only to fall off with the Buffalo Sabres shortly thereafter. But if you gaze a little further down the list, Michael Del Zotto is a pretty good framework, too. At the time of his of his 2 yr deal at $3.875M per year, the 25-year old Del Zotto had 158 points in 381 games. Del Zotto had some 40+ point seasons on his resume, as well.
I’m going to put Schultz at $3.8M per year for his cap hit, as he didn’t have the record of consistent production that Del Zotto did at the time and he’s 2 years older.
It’s always a little trickier when you’re talking about defense-first defensemen that don’t have a lot of counting stats. The 25-year old Dumoulin has 33 points in 163 games, so his value is derived in his steady, consistent play. Using these parameters, CapFriendly churned out these comparable players. For me, Erik Gudbranson seems like a good comp, signed for $2.5M. Mike Weber had stats at the time very similar to Dumoulin’s now, but Weber was a part-timer that typically played 50-60 games per year.
To that end, I’m going with $2.5M per year for Dumoulin’s cap hit, as well.
The 25-year old Conor Sheary is going to be a pretty interesting case study in restricted free agency. He’s definitely made his mark in only 1-1/2 NHL seasons, not bad for an undrafted player. His career points of 63 in 105 games yields a pretty interesting group of comparable characters. I’ve previously referenced Jaden Schwartz of the Blues as a good comp for Sheary, as the then-22 year old Schwartz only had 1-1/2 NHL seasons of experience when he signed his 2 year deal with an annual cap hit of $2.35M per year.
I’m going to stick with that and keep with my previous estimate of $2.5M per year for Sheary’s cap hit, with the extra money due to the fact that he’s the first choice to be on Sid’s right wing on Opening Night and that means something.
If you add up those five restricted free agents, you get a total of $10.3M dedicated to them. That still leaves roughly $7.7M to find a 6th defenseman (if they can’t/won’t re-sign Ruhwedel) or to upgrade on any existing players. I’ve heard some chatter about the Penguins going out to get 38-year old unrestricted free agent Joe Thornton and have him center the 3rd line. To the victor go the spoils, if the Pens can get one of this generation’s best playmakers to come and try to gravy train a Stanley Cup in the last couple years of his career. I certainly wouldn’t mind if Nick Bonino came back, either. Oskar Sundqvist doesn’t blow my hair back, so if the Penguins were to upgrade over him that would be great.
There are always plenty of 3rd-pairing defensemen available over the summer or in trades, too. I think Trevor Daley has reached the end of his useful life, in terms of injury avoidance and production while on the ice, but I wouldn’t gripe if he came back on a low-cost 1 year deal. The short story is that the Penguins, with Fleury’s money off the books, have plenty of wiggle room to take care of their own restricted free agents and still have cash left over to make a move or two extra. The reason for this extra cap space is due to the presence of so many low-cost contracts being held by high-production players like Guentzel, Rust, Wilson, etc. Stars like Crosby and Malkin make the team go, but the low-cost guys keep the Penguins sustainable in the long run.