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Gajtka: Sizzling, Significant Summer On Tap For Evolving Penguins

Next season won’t mark a new era. It will be different, though, and more so than what fans have gotten used to lately.

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As the glitchy T-Mobile Arena clock ran to all zeroes last Thursday night, it marked the end of the Vegas Golden Knights’ historic inaugural season and the Washington Capitals’ championship-free existence, but it also christened the start of the NHL offseason.

The Penguins aren’t anywhere near a position to overhaul their roster, but there’s no mistaking the prevailing wisdom that they’ll be a team to watch this summer.

For one, that’s just how Jim Rutherford operates. It’s been a little over a month since the Penguins’ fifth-year general manager said the following to reporters gathered for locker clean-out day:

“It’s obvious I’ve gotta keep an open mind on making some changes. I will make some changes. I can’t give you a definite answer as who it’s going to be right now or the exact positions. … I think it’s fair to say this will be a different-looking team. It doesn’t mean there are going to be drastic changes or a lot of changes, but there will be changes in areas that (are) necessary.”

On first blush, those words were rather routine.

Of course there will be changes, because there almost always are in modern-day pro sports, and especially in a league with a hard salary cap. Plus, the Penguins might’ve lost to the eventual champions, but their competitive standards remain sky-high for the time being.

Also, as mentioned above, Rutherford has a history.

The past two offseasons were relatively quiet from a player-acquisition standpoint, with Matt Hunwick holding firm as the Penguins’ biggest ‘get’ in that timeframe, with Ryan Reaves also in the running. But, the last time Sidney Crosby didn’t hoist the Stanley Cup at playoffs’ end, Rutherford went out and procured one Phil Kessel a couple of months later.

There’s undoubtedly a case to be made for simply rolling this thing over and getting back after it with a similar group in the fall. In the face of all the fits and starts the Penguins went through during their three-peat attempt, they were a goal here and a save there away from getting back to the Eastern Conference final for the third straight year, if not further.

As I detailed last week on PHN Extra, the Penguins’ underlying numbers from 2017-18 don’t show a team in need of big changes, either. Perhaps a longer offseason is all that’s needed to get Kris Letang and Matt Murray back on track, and a few months apart could be just the tonic for growing irritation between Kessel and the coaching staff.

Injured? You need a lawyer. Call Joshua R. Lamm.

Would you really be surprised if a similar team compared to the one that ended last season made a serious run at a fourth title in 11 years? I wouldn’t. As the Capitals just showed, superstars can still lead a Cup challenge into their early 30s. Having Crosby and Evgeni Malkin under affordable club control gives the Penguins a fighting chance for the next couple years, at least.

Rutherford acknowledged as much last month, seemingly in an effort to tamp down any thoughts that significant changes must be at hand, just because the season didn’t conclude with sterling silver. Remember: The salary cap is rising by an undetermined amount, too.

“We’re a good team and we will be a good team going forward,” Rutherford said. “We’ll have a chance to win again. We have the nucleus to do that.”

It can be presumed that Kessel, Letang, Brian Dumoulin and Olli Määttä were all included in Rutherford’s mind when he spoke of nucleus, in addition to the freshly-extended Patric Hörnqvist and the inexpensive (for now) Jake Guentzel.

Or maybe we shouldn’t presume anything, since the other options to dangle on the trade market probably wouldn’t bring a lot back. Carl Hagelin ($4 million salary in 2018-19), Conor Sheary ($3 million yearly through 2019-20) and Derick Brassard ($3 million for one more year) didn’t lift their value much at all in 2017-18. Hunwick ($2.25 million per for two more years) certainly didn’t help himself by finishing the season stapled to the bench.

With how Rutherford describes the Penguins’ assets last month, it seemed he was indicating that bigger contracts could be moved. See what you think.

“We also have the pieces in place that other teams are going to want, so we can make those changes,” Rutherford said. “Sometimes you don’t have those players, for cap reasons or for different reasons.”

At any rate, if the Penguins want to upgrade their defense — and as Pittsburgh Hockey Now understands it, supplementing the blue line is the top priority — then a trade of some sort will probably have to be made.

Spearheaded by John Tavares, the free-agent market is intriguing from a forward perspective, but there will be few legit defenders available to sign on July 1. John Carlson is probably out of their price range, Mike Green is too one-dimensional for their taste and Calvin de Haan‘s mid-range skill set will likely be overly valued because of the scarcity in the market.

So after gathering all these clues, a significant deal appears to be in the offing for Rutherford. There are few general managers in the league better equipped to pull off something productive, but buckle up anyway.

Next season won’t mark a new era in Penguins history. It almost certainly will be different, though, and more so than what fans have gotten used to lately.

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A lifelong hockey addict, Matt has been fortunate enough to make his career in his sport of choice, working in high school, juniors, college and the pros in various multimedia roles. Previous to joining PHN, Matt was a credentialed Penguins/NHL beat reporter for the past two seasons, including coverage of the 2017 Stanley Cup Final. He signed on with PHN in Feb. 2018 as co-owner, contributing commentary and analysis in various forms.

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