In this truncated and uncertain offseason, the Pittsburgh Penguins and GM Jim Rutherford have inked a trio of bargain-basement free agent signings. The Penguins hope they found a few blue light specials with forwards Mark Jankowski, Evan Rodrigues, and defenseman Cody Ceci.
With history as a guide, when the Penguins hit on low-cost free agents, success follows.
The National Hockey League was a bit late to the free agency party. While Curt Flood kicked open MLB’s doors in the 1970s, hockey didn’t have a legitimate unrestricted free agency until the NHL lockout of 1994-95. The Pittsburgh Penguins snared bargain bin free agents before then, including legend Bryan Trottier, but only because a controlling team allowed it.
Even in 1995, players had to reach 31-years-old before they could become an unrestricted free agent. The NHL and NHLPA didn’t lower the age 27 until the season-long armageddon lockout of 2005-06.
However, the Penguins have signed a few players to paltry contracts who have been integral parts of great Penguins teams, and a few more have lifted the Stanley Cup.
We poured through 30 years of transactions looking for the best bargains. No, we didn’t include 2002 signee Marc Bergevin or the Penguins 1998 theft of Dan Kesa from the Hartford Whalers (Kesa played a career-high 67 NHL games that season).
We waffled on a few players, including 6-foot-8 Steve McKenna, who was a worthy enforcer from 2002 through 2004, and a hell of a nice guy to this once young reporter.
We almost included goalie Ty Conklin, who became the steady outdoor classic goalie for three teams in three years. Conklin was a depth goalie who propelled Edmonton to the Stanley Cup Final in 2005 and resurrected his career in 2007-08 with the Penguins. Later in the season, he pushed Marc-Andre Fleury for the starting goalie spot, and Fleury played some of his best hockey in 2007-08.
Consider McKenna and Conklin numbers seven and six, respectively.
Other Honorable Mentions: Steve Sullivan, in 2011-12, scored a healthy 48 points after a desert-dry start. Aaron Asham added a bit of chaos and snarl to the Penguins lineup for two seasons. Mr. Game 1 Jeff Zatkoff was a depth goalie signing, but his contributions to the 2016 Stanley Cup run will forever be remembered.
And…Dennis Bonvie was a depth signing who forever put a stamp on the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. As the tough guy on the first WBS Penguins roster, he lit up the new market with his fists and tough personality.
Top 5 Pittsburgh Penguins Bargain Bin Free Agents
5. Blake Comeau
After a couple of down seasons in Columbus, the Penguins picked up Comeau for the lowest payday of his career, just $700,00.
Comeau played much of the 2014-15 season beside Evgeni Malkin and posted 16 goals and 15 assists. Comeau wasn’t a long term fit, and cracks with Malkin showed as the big Russian center was visibly frustrated towards the end of the season. But for 700k, Comeau did his job before getting a three-year, $2.4 million payday with the Colorado Avalanche.
4. Mike Rupp
Now an NHL Network analyst, Rupp brought those hockey smarts to the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2009-10. According to the salary calculator at HockeyZonePlus, Rupp made just $800,000 as a sturdy bottom-six forward but was re-signed in 2010-11, too.
Rupp’s Penguins stats won’t leap off the page, but they never did. He played in 81 games in each of his two Penguins seasons and totaled 36 points with 244 penalty minutes. And, he won few faceoffs from the pivot but got his nose dirty in the corners for a Penguins team, which was quickly losing its grit.
3. Jarkko Ruutu
The pest of pests. The agitator of agitators. The Penguins wanted some sandpaper and grit in their lineup and signed Ruutu to a two-year, $2.3 million deal. While the amount stretches the borderline of bargain-basement, it’s close enough to include Ruutu, who scored just 32 points in 152 regular-season games for the Penguins but also racked up 263 penalty minutes.
He was the power play magnet who stirred the pot for the Penguins en route to the 2008 Wales Conference Trophy.
2. Robert Lang
In 1997, Pittsburgh Penguins GM Craig Patrick picked up a spare part, which would become part of one of the most dominant Penguins lines ever.
Lang donned the black and gold for just $400,000 (in a time of unchecked and uncapped salaries). He had just 22 points in 51 games in his first Penguins season, but scored 44 in 1998-99, then stuck around for his career breakout seasons in 1999-2000 (65 points) and 2000-2001 (80 points).
Lang formed the famed KLS line with Alex Kovalev and Marty Straka; all three were castoffs from other teams and helped to carry the Penguins for two seasons.
Craig Patrick sought a trade partner for the pending free-agent Lang in 2002 but found no worthy offers. The wealthy Washington Capitals scooped up what the Penguins couldn’t afford and paid Lang $5 million per season for five years.
Lang joined former linemate and fellow Czech Jaromir Jagr in Washington before being traded to Detroit two years later.
1. Matt Cullen
Pittsburgh Penguins GM Jim Rutherford scooped Cullen off the free-agent heap in the fall of 2015. Cullen was a late signing and appeared to be an extra body hoping for one more NHL shot.
Instead, Cullen earned a spot as the Penguins fourth-line center, became a locker room leader, and decided to stick around for a few more seasons, though he did spend one of those seasons with his hometown Minnesota Wild.
In his first Penguins season, Cullen scored 32 points (16g, 16a) and was a driving force in the Penguins 2016 and 2017 back-to-back Stanley Cup championships. While his young sons roamed the locker room, Cullen also became known as “Dad” to the Penguins players, too.
His maturity and ability to hold the Penguins top players accountable helped create a juggernaut that redefined speed and mental toughness in the NHL.
Cullen is now part of the Penguins player development staff “fathering” others on their NHL path.