There was no shortage of handwringing or negative predictions when the Pittsburgh Penguins and General Manager Jim Rutherford inked pounding winger Patric Hornqvist to a five-year contract on Feb. 26, 2018. Hornqvist was 31-years-old, and he plays a physical game like few wingers in the NHL.
In 2018, the fanbase reaction split, perhaps as much as 50-50 if the deal was good for the Penguins or far too long.
Last summer, after Hornqvist completed the worst statistical season of his career (excluding his rookie year), eyebrows indeed raised. The 2018-19 season was the first of the five-year deal, and Hornqvist failed to score 20 goals during a full season for the first time in his career. He was unable to pop 20 markers just twice before; in his 28-game rookie season (2g, 5a) and in the strike-shortened 2012-13 season when he played only 24 games (4g, 10a).
Patric Hornqvist was not the same last season after he returned from a concussion at mid-season. He and center Nick Bjugstad with winger Dominik Simon were puck possession demons but couldn’t light the lamp. The trio was painfully dry despite owning the puck. Hornqvist finished with 18 goals, despite scoring 15 in his first 35 games.
There was real concern the Penguins bought milk without looking at the expiration date — from both sides of the 50-50 debate.
Hornqvist qualifies for a 2/3 buyout salary cap hit, which means a buyout this summer would reduce the Pittsburgh Penguins cap hit to just over $1.7 million for the next four seasons (one longer than the duration of the contract).
A trade following this suspended season could also net the Penguins a much-needed prospect or draft pick and give the Penguins more than $5 million to use to fortify their roster.
Yeah, no thanks. Hornqvist is a keeper.
This season, Hornqvist rebounded with 17 goals in 54 games. On Feb. 16, when head coach Mike Sullivan shuffled Hornqvist to the fourth line with Sam Lafferty and Andrew Agozzino, Hornqvist exploded with two goals and one of his most impressive games of the season.
The Penguins power play also routinely struggles without Hornqvist, who creates a stir in front of the net. The Penguins power play hasn’t clicked at the same rate this season (19.9%) as it has in past seasons with conversion rates slightly above or below 25%. So, Hornqvist’s 15 games missed don’t reflect as dramatically on the Penguins power play this season as they have in years past when the conversion rates greatly improved with him in the lineup.
To a person, the Penguins locker room praises Hornqvist’s intangibles, too.
“He’s a great teammate and person,” Sullivan said in January. “And (he) just wants to help this team win. He’s the ultimate competitor as we’ve witnessed over the past five-plus years.”
Believe it or not, the salary cap crunch next season shouldn’t be as drastic as it was last October when the Penguins needed to make a trade to have the cash to ice their best lineup.
Matt Murray and/or Tristan Jarry will a new contract. Jared McCann will get paid, too. As of now, CapFriendly.com projects the Pittsburgh Penguins have just over $68 million invested in 15 players, and if things hold to some degree of normalcy, the team will have about $15 million to spend to complete their roster.
That’s not bad.
And it’s no reason to make hard decisions like sacrificing Hornqvist.
His ability to create chaos in front of the net, his ability to score from lower lines, and perhaps as importantly his locker room presence with energy and resolve, Hornqvist is part of the fabric of the Penguins. When things are bleak, it’s Hornqvist who keeps the faith. It’s him who stands in the middle of the locker room defiantly challenging the hockey gods, or sternly promising things will improve.
Ask any Penguins player. They’ll tell you. Patric Hornqvist makes a difference on and off the ice.
When Hornqvist’s time is up, it will be obvious. Johan Franzen. Wayne Simmonds. Players who make a living in the net-front battle areas and take a pounding are great, until the day they are not. Hornqvist’s number will be up someday. But it certainly isn’t this year. And the way Hornqvist takes care of himself, it won’t be soon.
And there will be an expansion draft next summer, too. A veteran with a bigger contract is the perfect bait to create some roster protection for younger players, but not lose your veteran either.
Hornqvist must stick around until he cannot. No question.