The deeper into the NHL free-agent period we get, the more settled and transparent teams become. With only a few exceptions, most teams across the NHL, including the Pittsburgh Penguins, have their lineup set. For better and worse, we have a pretty good idea of the Penguins lines and can judge their free-agent period.
We know how the Penguins UFA signings fit, barring a shocking, surprising turn of events, of course.
While the Penguins signings underwhelmed some fans and some pundits, including this one, there was also a method to GM Jim Rutherford’s madness.
Rutherford encountered gale-force winds in his efforts to refresh the Pittsburgh Penguins team, which has been quickly humbled in each of the last two NHL postseasons. Vegas GM Kelly McCrimmon summed it up on Monday night after announcing he would keep Marc-Andre Fleury.
“There’s not a lot of places that are looking to add players with big numbers or assuming contracts with term,” the Vegas GM said. “There are a lot of teams that are really trying to be as close to the floor as they can.”
In other words, teams with salary-cap space don’t have money. Teams without salary cap space don’t have money. And most teams are trying to trade away players, not acquire them.
The NHL trade market is all jammed up.
The case FOR the Pittsburgh Penguins Signings
Mark Jankowski, heretofore pronounced in Pittsburghese, (Jan-KAAAH-ski), and Evan Rodrigues are thus far the only UFAs to put their name on the paper with the Penguins.
Seemingly, the Penguins spent about half of their available budget on the pair of players who figure to be third or fourth-liners, at best. And that’s why the signings work.
The Penguins didn’t actually spend half of their budget on the pair. It only appears that way on paper. In the same reasoning Jim Rutheford acquired Greg McKegg in the summer of 2017, or Derek Grant in the 2019 offseason, the players were acquired to compete for a role. If the players don’t fulfill the role, they’re able to be stashed in the minors, and their salary cap hit is entirely buried.
Jankowski or Rodrigues would have to clear waivers to be hidden in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, but if the situation arises and the players do not clear waivers, the Penguins will not have lost value.
If the players succeed, the Penguins have spent merely $700,000 each.
If a bigger name free agent, such as Sami Vatanen or Erik Haula, falls into the Penguins price range, either of the Penguins signees could be moved off of the NHL roster to make cap space (the move would officially occur closer to training camp).
Literally, no risk, all reward.
Jankowski, 26, appeared to be on his way to being a premier third-line center. The 6-foot-4, 212-pound pivot scored 17 goals in his rookie year (2017-18). He followed up with 14 goals in his sophomore season before slumping to an awful five goals and seven points in 2019-20.
His Corsi stats and faceoff stats were underwater, but he is a defensively responsible center with size and hands.
The Penguins are counting on Jankowski to fill the third or fourth center position, which will allow them to keep Jared McCann at LW. McCann has a wicked shot and speed, so the Penguins are well justified in trying to get him in a scoring position. If the Jankowski signing doesn’t work, the Penguins can cut bait at any time, and it will only cost owner Mario Lemieux $700,000, not the team cap structure.
Rodrigues is in several ways a different situation than Jankowski, but the consequences, or lack thereof, are the same.
Rodrigues, 27, is a gamble. He’s been itching for a real opportunity and became somewhat vocal about that during his final months in Buffalo last season. Rodrigues became an occasional healthy scratch last season before the trade. Buffalo coaches relegated him to the fourth-line and he played about 11 minutes per game.
The scrappy forward who can play all three positions scored 21 goals in 41 games during his senior season at Boston University (playing beside Jack Eichel).
However, Rodrigues is slight. The books list him at 5-foot-11, 184 pounds, which seems slightly embellished. He could stand to hit the Dan Kingerski pandemic diet and gain 10 pounds, like the rest of us (Somehow, I gained weight even in Toronto quarantine?!)
The Penguins signee really showed what he could do just before the pandemic. After Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan made him a healthy scratch on March 7 against the Washington Capitals, Rodrigues was a tornado the following night against Carolina then followed up his performance with another exceptional effort against New Jersey two days later.
The NHL closed the regular season one day later, and Rodrigues didn’t get into the playoffs, despite being one of the most impressive players in the Penguins training camp 2.0, before the Qualifying Round.
It’s a $700,000 gamble which the Penguins can only win.
Per NHL CBA rules, teams can exceed the $81.5 million salary cap by 10% during the offseason. So, should a greater opportunity present itself to the Penguins, they will be able to capitalize.
No risk. All reward. And that’s the argument for the Pittsburgh Penguins free agent signings.