In every team’s history, there lie a few contracts that fans and general managers would like to forget—those players whose contracts grip their team’s financial structure like a wooden stockade in the town square. The Pittsburgh Penguins are no different and have a few contracts, which were bitter pills, including one which shaped the organization for 20 years.
Sometimes, the worst events create the best results. As we count the worst contracts in Penguins history, we’re going to include a special 1A.
First, the honorable mentions:
Ziggy Palffy signed a big free-agent contract after the destructive 2004-05 lockout. The Pittsburgh Penguins had revenue sharing and a salary cap. Palffy was a 30-goal scorer, and GM Craig Patrick splurged $13.5 million over three years. However, Palffy bolted after just three months. This isn’t one of the worst contracts because the consequences were wiped clean when Palffy left the NHL.
Zbynek Michalek was one of two defensemen GM Ray Shero signed on July 1, 2010. Paul Martin was the other. Michalek was a defensive specialist but lasted just one season after signing a five-year, $20 million deal. Shero dealt Michalek back to the Arizona Coyotes, so, no harm, no foul. But a bad contract.
Sergei Plotnikov brought some hope to be a power forward from Russia in 2015. Instead, he worked his way down to the fourth line, scored zero goals in 32 games, and was dealt to Arizona for a bag of pucks.
We considered Patric Hornqvist, but PHN feels Hornqvist was still producing at adequate levels two years into a five-year deal before he was dealt for Mike Matheson and Colton Sceviour. We also considered Conor Sheary, but ultimately, he was the asset flipped to the Buffalo Sabres so Buffalo would accept the contract of Matt Hunwick, so Sheary’s three-year, $9 million deal didn’t harm the Penguins.
Pittsburgh Penguins 5 Worst Contracts
5. Matt Hunwick
The Penguins inked Hunwick to a bargain deal to replace the popular and speedy Trevor Daley after the 2017 Stanley Cup victory. Hunwick spent part of his Colorado Avalanche tenure in the AHL but signed a three-year NHL deal with the Penguins worth $6.75 million.
Hunwick was banished to the press box, and the Penguins gave Sheary to Buffalo to move Hunwick after one season. Whoops.
4. Christian Ehrhoff
The former top-four blueliner became a free agent after the Buffalo Sabres swallowed more than half of his 10-year $40 million contract in 2014. Buffalo will be paying Ehrhoff until 2028 after their buyout, which made him a free agent.
The Penguins pounced and gave Ehr a second-chance, 1-year $4 million deal. It was abundantly clear the two were not a good fit and the defenseman played only 49 games before being allowed to walk away.
3. Jack Johnson
The Penguins will be paying Jack Johnson until 2026 after the team bought out the defensive defenseman. The Penguins Twitterverse bane, who was at fault for everything real and imagined, signed a five-year, $16.5 million contract on July 1, 2018.
While team sources publicly and privately lauded and defended Johnson from a vociferous public onslaught, GM Jim Rutherford cut ties to save money this season. The financial impact of Johnson will last for six seasons.
2. Jocelyn Thibault
The fresh winds which swept away years of financial hardship quickly turned to a foul stench in 2005. Rookie Sidney Crosby couldn’t carry the team laden with underperforming veterans.
Penguins GM Craig Patrick signed a handful of big-name free agents, including goalie Jocelyn Thibault. The netminder was fresh from a hip injury but had been a workhorse in previous seasons. Thibault floundered on a two-year, $3 million deal and didn’t finish year two.
He was a prime disappointment and left the Penguins without an NHL ready goalie. Fresh-faced Marc-Andre Fleury, who was the NHL first-overall pick in 2003, wasn’t ready and struggled for the next couple of seasons.
1. Rob Scuderi Pt. 2
Scuderi was a slow-footed stalwart who helped the young Pittsburgh Penguins win the 2009 Stanley Cup. His Cup-protecting save in the crease was second only to Fleury’s diving save on Niclas Lidstrom in the final seconds of the clinching game. However, Scuderi then cashed in with a lucrative four-year deal from the LA Kings.
Four years later, the Penguins and GM Ray Shero felt the 35-year-old Scuderi was the missing piece for another Stanley Cup run. Like a horror movie that played out on screen, as Penguins fans yelled, “No!” the Penguins walked into the darkness looking for an escape to recent playoff failures.
Instead, the team was strangled by a four-year, $13.5 million deal which extended from 2013 to 2017. The contract loomed large as the aging Scuderi’s skills eroded further and the team scrambled for salary cap space to find scoring wingers for Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
Good man. Good history. Terrible signing. However, not all was lost. GM Jim Rutherford pulled a Houdini-like trade when he got Trevor Daley for Scuderi in 2016. Daley became the missing piece for the Penguins blue line and back-to-back Stanley Cup run.
Now, the surprise:
1A: Mario Lemieux
Perhaps it’s the best and worst contract in Pittsburgh Penguins history. The greatest Penguins player and one of the two greatest players in NHL history also signed what could be twisted into the most unaffordable contract in Penguins’ history.
However, the contract ultimately saved the Penguins, so we call it a win.
On Oct. 6, 1992, Lemieux signed an NHL record seven-year, $42 million deal. However, five years into the deal, Lemieux retired and was owed $32 million in deferred salary. The already cash-strapped Penguins ownership led by Howard Baldwin buckled without Lemieux. The team was thrust into bankruptcy two years later and the team’s financial plight became frontpage news.
The “terrible” deal was entirely the fault of the team as owner Howard Baldwin got too creative with a contract based on continued Stanley Cup success. Instead, the infamous 1993 upset by the New York Islanders, an entire season without Lemieux (1994-95), and Lemieux’s retirement followed.
“If we didn’t think it was a prudent investment, we wouldn’t have made it,” Baldwin said during the contract press conference. “We expect to get a return for our money.”
Baldwin didn’t, but the Penguins did.
Had Lemieux not flashed his legendary heroics, the Penguins would have been lost to another city or NHL contraction. However, as the largest unsecured creditor, in 1998 Lemieux was able to rescue the team from the bankruptcy court, with the help of billionaire Ron Burkle.
What if Lemieux didn’t save the team? Would we view the deal differently?
Now, don’t get too bent out of shape about Lemieux on the list. It is an interesting look at the Penguins history from a different point of view.
Alls well that ends well.