Never before has the period after Labor Day been the peak NHL offseason, but welcome to the COVID-19 world. In a bit of normalcy, the Pittsburgh Penguins began their offseason looking for a winger for captain Sidney Crosby after Conor Sheary Part II didn’t pan out and GM Jim Rutherford paid full price to complete the Penguins trade for RW Kasperi Kapanen.
Now, we are into the season when anonymous Twitter accounts can post anonymous trade rumors, and the internet launches into a tizzy. Welcome to the silly season.
Rutherford made the first big splash of the offseason and did so as 16 teams battled in the NHL playoffs or were just beginning to lick their wounds from an early exit. Rival GMs felt left out as they didn’t get a chance to bid on the Penguins 15th overall pick, according to Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman.
The Penguins got their man and paid the price that other teams refused.
The Penguins top-six is likely settled, and the top-nine would be set, except for the third-line center. With another Penguins trade, or two, and free agency period pending, the Penguins and Rutherford have more work…a lot more work to do.
The Penguins need to find a third-pairing defenseman, third-line center and improve other parts of their lineup, which has suffered a pair of opening-round playoff losses.
The Matt Murray trade seems to be a forgone conclusion, but there are more things to consider:
The Penguins Silly Season
1. The Jack Johnson Factor
Johnson is the defensive presence on the third pair and a primary penalty killer.
However, the Penguins have a pair of mobile, offensively talented left-defensemen who will soon be NHL-ready and would not excel as stay-home, PK defenders. The first of those defensemen behind Johnson is Juuso Riikola, who inked a two-year, $2.3 million deal on Saturday. Obviously, the Penguins would like to keep the inexperienced Finnish defender around.
The Penguins also have top defenseman prospect P-O Joseph, who is rapidly approaching NHL readiness.
Rutherford vigorously defended Johnson following the Penguins Qualifying Round loss. New assistant coach Todd Reirden also offered unprompted praise for Johnson.
But, what if the Penguins can get a reliable, defensive-minded right-sider? The Penguins should consider Johnson as a six or seventh defenseman if a superior, dependable right defenseman can be acquired to play with Riikola or Joseph.
If the Penguins find ice-time for Riikola, they may learn just how good he can be (before Joseph claims the spot).
Subset: In 2018, Rutherford also signed former prospect Daniel Sprong to a two-year contract. The Penguins feared losing Sprong on waivers, but the longer deal added an impediment to claiming Sprong; a waiver claim wouldn’t be just a one-year experiment. The security allowed the Pittsburgh Penguins to send the prospect to the WBS Penguins to grow his game. Riikola needs to develop his game, too. A short stint in the AHL might be an excellent launchpad to get him ready for the NHL.
Zach Trotman can function as depth LD if the Penguins choose to carry a second spare defenseman beyond Chad Ruhwedel while Riikola readies himself.
2. Buyout Bjugstad
This season, Bjugstad played just 13 games and suffered at least two setbacks in his rehab before he had spinal surgery at the Mayo Clinic in May. The Penguins reported Bjugstad’s recovery time was eight weeks, which means he should be healthy for next season.
But in a season plus, Bjugstad has not yet distinguished himself or his $4.1 million salary.
The Penguins could free up $3.5 million next season in exchange for a $1.75 million cap hit in 2021-22. After Rutherford zipped his first-round pick to Toronto for Kapanen, the Penguins don’t have many vehicles left by which they can shed salary. And the immediate savings would give Rutherford more time to maneuver around the cap and the prospects more time to be ready.
The buyout period begins 48 hours after the Stanley Cup presentation. This fall, the free agency period will begin seven days after Phil Pritchard delivers the Cup, so there will be a short period to accomplish goals.
The Penguins have about $8 million in salary-cap space, which won’t be enough to re-sign Tristan Jarry, Jared McCann, and the stockpile of additional RFAs, including Dominik Simon and Sam Lafferty.
The $8 million certainly won’t be enough to sign the RFAs and a UFA to fill the third-line center or third-pair defenseman roles.
3. Jared McCann Trade
Why would the Penguins trade a young, fast, versatile forward? McCann could receive about $3 million in arbitration. It’s not inconceivable the Penguins trade a 35-point player who has yet to own a role in the Penguins lineup.
Two weeks ago, Sportsnet also reported that Rutherford was testing the market for McCann, who could become Penguins trade bait. In fact, McCann hit No. 16 on the TSN Trade Bait Board. The Penguins have their top prospect, LW Sam Poulin, close to ready for his jump to the NHL. Grinder Sam Lafferty is also capable of filling the left-wing spot.
4. Patric Hornqvist, Stay or Go?
The Pittsburgh Penguins need energy, guts, and desire. Those are things that Patric Hornqvist brings to the locker room and the ice. Worries about his contract length are in the wrong pew, as the Penguins are all-in now, and Hornqvist’s contract length has no bearing on the immediate.
Hornqvist, 33, is everything the Penguins need, except inexpensive.
For the record, the indomitable Swede with perpetual bruises and a fighting spirit has three years remaining on his five-year, $26.5 million contract. In the shortened 2019-20 season, Hornqvist had 17 goals in 52 games. His production returned to adequate levels after a second-half swoon in 2018-19, but injuries have become more common, too.
One wonders if a Stanley Cup contender like Colorado, Toronto, or Edmonton, could view Hornqvist’s game and energy as an asset worth prying from the Penguins, and would the Penguins trade him to repurpose that capital.
5. How Can the Penguins Change if Changes Aren’t Made?
The additions of Todd Reirden and Mike Vellucci to the coaching staff, and Kasperi Kapanen to the lineup aren’t game-changers. How are the Pittsburgh Penguins going to change without significant change?