The Penguins are fresh off the high of raising their fourth Stanley Cup in franchise history and the second in the Sidney Crosby-Evgeni Malkin era. This win justifies the tandem’s place in not just the franchise’s history, but in the NHL landscape. Any franchise can win one Cup and many franchises have done so with far less star power than exists on the Penguins. But when players of 87 and 71’s magnitude orbit the same space, it is expected that multiple Cups follow.
This season was a roller coaster for the Penguins. The first three months were like watching metal grinding on metal as the junior varsity coach, Mike Johnston, squeezed every ounce of fun and creativity out of this team. Then the rest of December and some of January was spent implementing Mike Sullivan’s system and methodologies. From mid-January on to mid-June, the Penguins were virtually unstoppable and breathtaking at times to watch, especially in this era of NHL hockey when offense is still being suppressed.
Lord Stanley’s silver chalice has been barely dried out from the copious amounts of alcohol that were probably in it, but it’s time to look forward to what the Penguins may do for an offseason plan.
OPTION 1 — BRING ‘EM ALL BACK (sort of)
We’re all going to live forever and do this again and again and again! The Penguins have a surprising number of players under contract already for next year. Via General Fanager, the only unrestricted players (of note) are: Matt Cullen, Ben Lovejoy, and Jeff Zatkoff. The only two restricted free agents are Justin Schultz and Beau Bennett. The Pens are virtually assured of moving on from the Beau Bennett era. With the arrival of Matt Murray, Zatkoff is probably not going to get re-signed under this Option 1 (but hang around for further options). The other three guys could all be brought back for around $5M combined, which would give the Penguins a cap number of around $78.8M and right around the NHL cap ceiling (perhaps just a shade over).
The whole gang would be around to defend the Cup in the 2016-17 season, one in which the Penguins would clearly be on the shortlist of Stanley Cup favorites after this past season’s performance. Of course, this option is the least likely one.
OPTION 2 — KEEP THE MAJORITY OF THE PLAYERS AND MAKE A COUPLE OF MOVES
It’s pretty obvious to most observers that Matt Murray is the real deal. Even ardent Marc-Andre Fleury supporters have to grudgingly admit that Murray’s ascension is a huge boon to the Penguins. Naturally, those same supporters will just say that Fleury should be the starter for 50-60 games, with Murray as the young understudy backup playing the remainder. But after carrying the goaltender load through the Cup run, that would be a huge step down for Murray. It’s his time.
So if the Penguins can trade Fleury and his $5.75M cap hit to a team (there are plenty of teams looking for a #1 goalie, especially in the Canadian prairie), they can re-allocate a good portion of his salary to other upgrades or roster flexibility. Yes, Fleury has a limited no-trade clause, but it’s not ironclad and he isn’t going to want to stick around here and backup Murray, so he’ll be amenable to a trade. If the Penguins like Zatkoff, they could probably re-sign him for $750K and get $5M of savings to spread around, while locking up their goalie tandem. If they want to get a more reliable veteran backup, they could probably get one for under $2M and still have around $3.5M to $4M of cap savings.
The Penguins probably need to make space for Derrick Pouliot in the starting six, as well, so they’ll most likely not hang on to the similarly-profiled Justin Schultz. Pouliot is on the last year of his entry-level deal for $863K, which is a decent savings over the $2M+ that Schultz would probably command as a restricted free agent.
I’ve spoken with TPOP contributor Leah about this idea and she believes that the Penguins will look to move Chris Kunitz and his 1 year/$3.85M on to another team, probably one that is trying to acquire salary to reach the salary cap floor. Moving the 36-year old Kunitz would greatly reduce the team age, as the new greybeards would be Trevor Daley and Ben Lovejoy (if he returns as the 7th defenseman) at age 32.
Now the Pens are looking at anywhere from $8M to $10M of cap room for next season. The Penguins could look to bring a winger in for the top two lines at a price point of $5M to $6M and still keep some flexibility for moves in-season. That’s the benefit of having players like Conor Sheary, Bryan Rust, Oscar Sundqvist, Pouliot, and Brian Dumoulin performing at a high rate on low entry-level salaries.
OPTION 3 — GO BOLD AND RESET THE CORE OF THE TEAM
I’m going to define the “core” of the team as Crosby, Malkin, Letang, and Fleury. Although Option 1 had the Penguins keeping Fleury, I just don’t see that as realistic due to financial and performance factors relating to Matt Murray. I’ve already laid out in Option 2 what to do with Fleury, so this option will discuss the remaining three core guys. (And yes, Phil Kessel is great, Olli Maatta has tons of potential, Carl Hagelin brings speed, but these are the originals of the 2008-2009 Cup runs. The others are the ancillary pieces that complement them).
Each of these three guys has been beset by injuries. Crosby and Letang have had multiple concussions with lengthy stretches of games missed. Malkin has had knee and shoulder issues. All three of them are either 29 or 30 years old and each of them have lengthy contracts at pricey cap hits. Letang is at $7.25M through 2022, Malkin is at $9.5M through 2022, and Crosby is at $8.7M through 2025. If the Penguins were to move any of them, assuming they can maneuver around the no-trade clauses, the receiving team would be tied to that player for some potential lean years at the end of the contract.
But someone would be interested (or a bunch of someones) in each of these three guys for various reasons. Each of them is within the top 5 at their respective positions in the NHL and would upgrade any roster. Of the three, it would be hardest for me to envision the Penguins moving Crosby. He’s the face of not only the franchise, but possibly the NHL. Yes, Wayne Gretzky was traded from Edmonton (and other spots), so anything is possible, but it’s hard for me to see it. Letang not only has an injury history, but also a reputation under the surface as a temperamental hothead that is prone to dirty plays. There’s some baggage to overcome with him.
For me, Malkin would be the easiest to potentially move, even though he makes the most money. He’s an explosive offensive force that can change a game, or a stretch of games, when he is fully firing on all cylinders. He’s been Crosby’s wingman or player #1A his whole career and with two Stanley Cups on his resume, he would probably welcome a new challenge and a chance to lead his own franchise. The return on Malkin would potentially be tremendous — I can’t see less than a 1st round pick in 2016, maybe a 1st or 2nd round pick in 2017, a young NHL player, and one or two prospects.
The Penguins would clear cap space that can allow them wiggle room to extend some current young Penguins like Matt Murray, Conor Sheary, and Brian Dumoulin ahead of them becoming RFA’s after the 2016-17 season. The Pens would still have an enviable collection of talent up front, as well as plenty of offensive defensemen. The picks and prospects would help replenish a farm system that is running low on impact talent, while the young NHL player could fill a void at a low salary.
My last question for the offseason would be…will Jim Rutherford be the one making these moves or will he go out on top and turn the team over to Jason Botterill?