The Pittsburgh Penguins have 14 forwards on NHL contracts, eight defensemen, and two goalies. General Manager Jim Rutherford has already overfilled his roster by one, but not every league source believes the Pittsburgh Penguins are finished adding players this offseason.
And Erik Haula is the one player who could change the Penguins offseason from a gamble to a step forward, from decline to revitalized.
It will not be easy, nor will it be cheap in terms of assets or cash, but it can be done.
This week, as PHN spoke with sources around the league about several topics, not everyone believes the Penguins are done on the NHL free-agent market. Still, those who think the Penguins could make a run at one of the remaining UFAs, also acknowledged more changes would be necessary before anything became possible.
Multiple sources are watching Erik Haula, one of the quality free agents who have thus far rejected below-value offers.
And the reasons others outside the organization are watching Rutherford in connection with Haula are simple. The Penguins currently have three players in their bottom six who must prove or again prove their NHL bonafides. That’s three of six players currently slated for the Penguins bottom two lines.
The total excludes Zach Aston-Reese, who scored 13 points last season (7g, 6a) but was statistically one of the most impactful defensive forwards in the NHL. Aston-Reese had shoulder surgery in August and will be out until at least January, if not February.
The bottom lines are a place for players to break into the league or prove themselves. A gamble, or two, are typical, but three? Mark Jankowski, Evan Rodrigues, and Sam Lafferty combined for only 30 points last season. Lafferty was the highest-scoring of the bunch with 13 points (6g, 7a).
However, of 18 possible playoff games, the group played in just six. Jankowski played in five of 10 Calgary Flames postseason games. Rodrigues didn’t get a game, and Lafferty only played one for the Penguins.
The Penguins also have fourth-liner Colton Sceviour, who was acquired when Rutherford dealt Patric Hornqvist to Florida. Sceviour is a safe option but does not figure to be an impact player, either.
And that is why there is speculation from insiders about Erik Haula to the Pittsburgh Penguins. It’s not likely, but it is possible. One source with knowledge of Haula’s free-agent talks circled the Penguins as “one of five or six teams” where Haula would fit.
To be clear, that is from outside the Penguins organization.
Penguins Free Agent Needs
Now, imagine the Penguins lineup with Haula as the third line center.
One risk on the line can complement what will most likely be a line, which is orders of magnitude better than the currently probable iteration. In fact, with a McCann-Haula pairing, the risks on the right-wing would have a much greater chance to succeed.
Last season, Haula scored 24 points (12g, 12a) in 48 games. In 2018-19, he scored 55 points (29g, 26a) in 76 games with Vegas. And, for most of his career, Haula has been over 53% in the faceoff circle.
In short, Haula would be the Penguins’ most prolific third-line center since young Jordan Staal and could remake the bottom half of the Penguins lineup. The Pittsburgh Penguins have a stacked top-six, which now includes six recent 20-goal scorers for the first time in recent memory, or perhaps for the first time in the Sidney Crosby era.
A third line center capable of 40 or more points and winning defensive zone faceoffs would elevate the Penguins lineup and give the Penguins an edge against their Metro Division rivals, instead of a deficit.
How Is It Possible?
The simple way would be to trade salary, but the lesson of this chaotic offseason is that is not possible. Last season, Haula made $2.75 million and should make at least that much going forward. Assume a three-year, $9 million deal is in the ballpark of fair, so the Penguins would have work to do to be able to afford him.
“A couple of things would have to shake out,” said one of our sources in full acknowledgment of the Penguins full house, minus Uncle Jesse and Joey.
According to PuckPedia.com, the Penguins have about $1.3 million before Aston-Reese is placed on LTIR, which will up their cap space to about $2.3 million. The Penguins could exceed the salary cap until later in training camp, at which time they could move Colton Sceviour to the AHL, at least on paper.
The “things” which would need to shake out would probably include moving a small salary; a couple of players could be buried in the minors. For example, the Penguins could add $1.05 million in salary-cap space by putting newly acquired Sceviour in the minors.
Putting Aston-Reese on LTIR would also buy time and moving a player like Sceviour to the AHL would free up another one million dollars, to give the Penguins over $3.3 million to begin the season. Moving Sceviour to another team would probably cost the Penguins a mid-round pick to go with him, and the Penguins don’t exactly have a lot of picks next season (They’ve already traded their first and third-round picks).
But that now seems a small price to pay considering the great lengths Rutherford has already pursued to create cap space this offseason. And, the rewards would outweigh the cost, in this case.
Further, putting one more minimum contract in the AHL would up the Penguins salary cap space to close to $4 million until Aston-Reese returns. If Aston-Reese were the unlucky player to stick in the minors, the team’s cap room would be $3.3 million, otherwise, the Penguins would have about $3 million.
That’s still not enough money, especially considering the Penguins will need enough of a cushion to recall players from the minors. The compressed season will lead to increased injuries and the need for recalled players.
Another salary to consider for shedding is seventh defenseman Juuso Riikola, who is a luxury at $1.15 million this season. The swift skating and enthusiastic Riikola has deserved a real NHL chance for at least a season but barring injury, he will not get it in Pittsburgh because he remains the fourth left-side defenseman.
In total, Rutherford could clear somewhere north of $4 million without harming his roster and then adding legitimate depth and scoring depth down the middle.
There are those in hockey watching to see if Rutherford will make the play. The view here is the Pittsburgh Penguins must find a way for Haula if they want any chance to be legitimate contenders.