Agents and teams were tight-lipped Sunday as the NHL listening period began. Teams and pending unrestricted free agents may now begin informal talks in anticipation of the July 1 feeding frenzy. The Pittsburgh Penguins have only a few pennies to spare but a potentially pressing need to upgrade a bottom pairing defenseman. Matt Hunwick and Chad Ruhwedel are currently the Penguins’ placeholders, but both seem more suited to a seventh defenseman’s role rather than being counted on for an 82-game schedule and 15 minutes per night.
There are defensemen on the perilously thin free-agent market who could provide an upgrade but many of those defensemen, such as Alexei Emelin or Calvin de Haan, will likely exceed the Penguins current ability to pay.
The Penguins backend speed was an issue at times last season as teams such as New Jersey and Carolina were able to skate past the Penguins blue liners for offensive chances. They already have one of the most expensive blue lines in the NHL, and unless the Penguins make a move, they will be shopping on the clearance rack for their back-pairing rearguard who can skate, move the puck but also be a steady defender.
It’s pure speculation but perhaps if the Penguins find a good bargain on the market, they could also use another defenseman, such as Olli Maatta, to net a potential top-six winger. Here are five defensemen who are available and could fit the Penguins mold.
1. John Moore
The soon-to-be former New Jersey Devils defenseman would fit with a team which prefers to play a fast game. Moore, 27, is a big frame and excellent skater though he is offensively bland. He averaged over 20 minutes of ice time last season but contributed just 18 points (7g, 11a) in 81 games. Moore’s best offensive season was 2016-17, as he scored 22 points (12g, 10a).
This season, Moore doubled his previous season hit total from 68 to 135. He also significantly upped his shot block total from 61 to 105. It should be noted, Moore played 18 more games this season, but the rates per game also significantly increased.
Given the market and Moore’s age, he could double his 2017-18 salary ($1.6 million), which puts him on the high end of the Penguins reach.
2. Cody Franson
If you are wondering why Franson can’t catch a break, you’re not alone. This season, Franson was solid in Chicago, earned praise from head coach Joel Quenneville who dishes praise only slightly more often than fans cheer Gary Bettman, and had good analytics.
And yet, here he is. Again. A free agent who made just $1 million this season.
Franson, 30, has a good shot from the blue line, offensive instincts, and a big frame. He is 6-foot-5 and 224 pounds. However, consistency has eluded Franson, thus far. In the Penguins environment, he could flourish and be had on the cheap. Consider him a Justin Schultz-lite reclamation project.
For the record, in 23 games Franson had a 59.9 percent Corsi in Chicago, as the coaches protected him with 65 percent offensive zone starts.
3. Andrej Sustr
Sustr, 27, has been a back pairing defenseman in Tampa Bay since cracking the NHL lineup in 2013-14. However, Tampa Bay’s corps is full, and Sustr will have new digs next year.
The 6-foot-7 Czech born defenseman has a condor wingspan and is mobile enough on his skates to play the position. What he lacks are snarl and offensive ability. He made just under $2 million last season and figures to remain in that range, or perhaps lower.
4. Thomas Hickey
The Islanders defense will undergo a revamp for next season. The Islanders were an epic throwback to 1980’s hockey; they were all offense, little defense, and bad goaltending. The Isles scored an impressive 264 goals but allowed a staggering 296.
In the midst of the Long Island chaos, Hickey managed a +20 rating. Seriously. Hickey, 29, also played over 18 minutes per night and scored 25 points (5g, 20a). His $2.2 million salary is fitting for a puck moving defenseman who lacks physicality or true top-four skill. He should get a raise, based on the market, but he doesn’t project to get a big contract.
5. Matt Bartkowski
Will the Penguins finally bring Bartkowski home? The Pittsburgh native has carved out a solid career with Calgary, Vancouver, and Boston, though has not escaped the bubble of a potential press box seat or AHL demotion.
If the Penguins are looking for depth, the 6-foot-1 and 196 pounds defenseman could be the perfect fit. Bartkowski, 31, is a physical defenseman who can handle the puck, though he does not contribute much offensively.
The Penguins could use a little help but with their salary cap situation, a little help is all they can afford. With a little luck and the defenseman whisperer Sergei Gonchar, perhaps a little investment will pay off in a big way.