Just in case you haven’t been paying close attention to the Pittsburgh Penguins since they slinked home after the Toronto bubble NHL postseason loss to the Montreal Canadiens, we’ll catch you up in advance of the NHL free-agent frenzy.
The Pittsburgh Penguins don’t have much money, and there are more quality free agents than at any time since the inception of the salary cap era. The Penguins shed salary and offered their fans an olive branch by non-tendering scapegoats Dominik Simon, and accepting six years of buyout payments to waive defenseman Jack Johnson. And, they traded goalie Matt Murray for a second-round pick and second-tier prospect early on Day 2 of the NHL draft.
Yet, the Penguins have only $3.97 million of salary-cap space.
In reality, they have about $3.2 million in spending capital if the team can spend to the salary cap ceiling, despite multiple reports that the team would like an internal salary cap closer to $75 million than $81.5 million.
However, the Penguins could add $750,000 of salary cap space by stashing Lafferty in the AHL (Lafferty would not have to pass through waivers) or $1.05 million by sending Colton Sceviour to the AHL.
All caught up?
Pittsburgh Penguins GM Jim Rutherford acknowledged on Wednesday that his team wouldn’t chase any big fish on the NHL free-agent market, but “we’ll be looking to add more players.”
In addition to a right-side defenseman, the Penguins need a legit third-line forward. Perhaps their need is at center, which would allow Jared McCann to slide to the wing, or perhaps they could use a gritty winger and keep McCann at center.
Based on Boston Hockey Now reporting, to which PHN is privy to their sources, Friday and Saturday could be wild days as no one, including agents and players, is sure what will happen.
First, the No Thank You’s:
Andreas Athanasiou: The Penguins need bottom-six wingers, and that role requires a defensive commitment. Athanasiou would have been an ideal reclamation project last season, but the Penguins are packed in their top-six, with top prospect Sam Poulin coming.
Alex Wenneberg: Perhaps it’s possible on a real sweetheart deal, but Wennberg hasn’t been good enough for a few years. He can defend, but he’s been a ghost in the offensive zone.
Vinnie Hinostroza: We checked. There doesn’t seem to be much interest either way.
Mark Jankowski: Despite the “ski” last name, the more we dug into this fit, the more we didn’t like it. Jankowski scored 32-points in 2018-19 but slumped to only seven points (5g, 2a) in 56 games this season. He was also a minus-12 on a good Calgary Flames team. Ouch. He’s a soft center with a little bit of offense. Probably not a good fit for the Penguins.
Also: Any player who will make more than a few million dollars.
Three Low-Cost Forwards for the Pittsburgh Penguins
1. Erik Haula, C
This could finally be the opportunity in which Haula winds up with the Penguins. GM Jim Rutherford has been linked to Haula several times in the past, but the slippery center who has eluded the Penguins grasp is a free agent in a depressed market.
Haula scored 24 points in 48 games last season, in which he played mostly for Carolina before Florida acquired him as part of the Vincent Trochek trade at the NHL trade deadline.
The uncertainty of the market could work for the Penguins. Under ordinary circumstances, Haula is a $3.5 million player (give or take a little). However, the market could depress his salary into the mid-2s.
Haula, 29, made $2.75 million last season.
2. Anthony Duclair, LW/RW
Duclair fired his agent and is representing himself, but he and the Ottawa Senators were unable to come to a contract agreement. Indications were he wanted well more money than Ottawa wanted to give, so Ottawa non-tendered the now UFA winger.
Duclair posted a career-high with 23 goals, which is the fourth-highest total among UFAs. The 25-year-old, with a quick release and silky mitts, finally showed turned some of that potential into production. Of course, he also received a greater opportunity and role with the lesser talented Senators than he would with a contender. He just finished a one-year deal worth only $1.65 million, but Ottawa couldn’t risk a massive arbitration loss.
Someone will sign Duclair quickly, OR he could languish on the market for a few days. If he doesn’t get a few million on Friday, he could fall into the Penguins range. Imagine Duclair-McCann-Tanev as a third line?
Duclair can also play the RW, too, and would be insurance should any of the top-six winger be injured. BUT–he has to fall into the Penguins price range, first.
3. Nick Cousins, LW/RW
A rambunctious winger with a little bit of offense. Oh boy, the Penguins could use a bit of that style. Cousins isn’t necessarily in high-demand unless his lack-of-demand and low price tag draw multiple bargain shoppers, and there are certainly more than a few this season.
Vegas non-tendered Cousins, 27, to avoid any surprise arbitration awards.
Cousins’ hit total has come down, from 115 to 91, as he moved from Arizona to Montreal/Vegas last season. At 5-foot-11, 185 pounds, he’s not fearsome, but agitating. His 25 points in 65 games would be an upgrade over all of the bottom-six Penguins wingers.
He might cost about $1 million?
4. Jesper Fast, RW
A speedy winger with a bit of offense and a bit of grit. Yes, please. He would be a big upgrade in the Penguins bottom-six.
Fast, 28, can fly, play defense, and chip in a bit on the score sheet, though his offense is streaky. He can kill penalties and has dished at least 99 hits in each of his six full NHL seasons.
Perhaps we should represent Fast? The New York Rangers are stocked, and Fast was a casualty. Fast will earn a multi-year contract and be a low-risk signing. After six-plus seasons with New York, both sides should be familiar. Imagine Tanev-McCann-Fast, or Aston-Reese–Blueger–Fast.
Fast’s contract may exceed the Penguins’ ability, too. He has scored a least 20 points in each of the last five seasons and scored 29 points (12g, 17a) last season.
He could command $3 million in a normal market. The Penguins might be wise to put their eggs in this basket.
4A: Michael Grabner LW/RW
Pittsburgh Hockey Now was told, “All we’ll tell you is, there was interest in the past.”
The blazingly fast winger doesn’t have much offense but he’s a PK dynamo and could well fill into the Penguins bottom six. Fast would be a much better option, but after Arizona bought out Grabner, he could be low-hanging fruit. We further explored the possibility here with words from an NHL scout, and are unconvinced it would be a great move.