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Gajtka: Penguins Make Right Call in Paying Patric Hörnqvist

There is only one Patric Hörnqvist. It’s become more and more evident as the season has progressed.

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There is only one Patric Hörnqvist. It’s become more and more evident as the season has progressed: There is no meaningful replacement for Hörnqvist if the signed elsewhere this upcoming summer.

So, it didn’t come as a terrible shock when Jim Rutherford announced on an otherwise slow NHL trade deadline day for the Penguins that the team and Hörnqvist are close to a contract extension.

“Over my career, I’ve done very few contracts during the season,” Rutherford told reporters Monday at Lemieux Sports Complex in Cranberry. “This shows what the organization and I think of Patric to get it done sooner than later. I felt it was important that he knows and we know that he’s going to be here going forward.”

Multiple reports indicate the parameters are set: Five years at an average annual value (AAV) of $5.3 million. That’s about the low end of what Hörnqvist, 31, could’ve expected to make if he allowed unrestricted free agency to run its course in the offseason.

But he didn’t want that and neither did the Penguins. Plus, with the salary cap set to rise by at least $3 million next season, it’s much easier to imagine the Penguins squeezing Hörnqvist in without clearing too much underbrush. Getting Vegas to cover $2 million of Derick Brassard‘s salary next season helps, too.

Longevity Concerns?

The fact that Hörnqvist just returned from missing three weeks due to injury is ironic because the primary long-term concern with the right-handed winger is that his body will break down due to the wear he naturally incurs through his rambunctious style of play.

To classify that as a real risk is missing the point, though. With all apologies to rookie Zach Aston-Reese, there’s no one in the organization — or really in the entire league — who can infuse the mix of energy, enthusiasm, and underrated excellence Hörnqvist does in most aspects of the game.

Hörnqvist has missed 11 games this year, but his low for games played in a season is 64, in his first Penguins season of 2014-15. By comparison, Evgeni Malkin has played fewer than 64 games three times, including twice in the past four seasons. Not saying Malkin is brittle or that Hörnqvist will always be durable, but the latter has a track record of staying on the ice through his first 10 NHL seasons.

Hörnqvist’s availability has undoubtedly contributed to his almost metronomic consistency in the category of offensive production. In his past three seasons, his points-per-game average is 0.62, 0.63 and 0.63. What’s his career average? Why, it’s 0.63.

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He’s also been a reliable possession player over his career, even this season when he’s only lifted the Penguins’ attempt ratio by 2 percent when on the ice, a metric also known as Corsi Relative. He’s been at 4 percent Corsi Relative or over in his first three Penguins seasons, so that trend bears watching, but Hörnqvist has still been helping more than hurting the Penguins wage the territorial battle.

Then there’s the net-front/slot role Hörnqvist serves on the power play. Per Josh Yohe at The Athletic, the man advantage has a crazy-big conversion split with and without the total Swedish eclipse in opposing creases:

We’re looking at a small sample size and the Penguins would make changes to their power play if Hörnqvist were to move on, but there’s another data point in his favor.

Go Down the List

So those are the numbers, but the decision-making behind Hörnqvist comes down to more than hard facts and figures.

First, the majority of the Penguins’ championship core — which includes Hörnqvist, by the way — are in their early 30s. It’s impossible to say how many years they can expect Sidney Crosby, Malkin, Phil Kessel and Kris Letang to carry the load. Hörnqvist might fade late in the deal, but by then the championship expectations will be different.

Second, while it might make good logical sense to let Hörnqvist test the market, the Rutherford quote I referenced above speaks to the value of reducing the uncertainty for the player, his teammates and the team itself. Hörnqvist doesn’t strike as the kind of person to get fat and happy after signing long-term.

Finally, the inspirational lift Hörnqvist provides is rare. In a game of emotion like hockey, there will be some nights in which the group doesn’t have enough “juice,” to use a Mike Sullivan-ism. No. 72 is the kind of player who almost forces his teammates to raise their individual levels of intensity.

In my experience covering the Penguins over the past two seasons, there’s no one I’d rather talk with after a game for a no-frills evaluation of the team’s play. With help from that direct approach, he’s risen to the level of ‘leader’ on a team with two of this generation’s top five players and several other highly-accomplished pro athletes.

Hörnqvist doesn’t play an elegant game, but he’s nonetheless skilled in all the little plays that help a team keep the puck. He’s not an elite finisher, but he piles up goals and points by driving into the most dangerous areas of the ice.

In short, he’s a championship player who’s fulfilled every bit of hope Rutherford had for him when the Penguins general manager sent James Neal to Nashville nearly four years ago.

Risky signing? It would’ve been riskier to the Penguins’ future Stanley Cup chances not to do it.

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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.

10 Comments

10 Comments

  1. Jay95

    February 27, 2018 at 7:38 am

    I really appreciate this take. This site is one of the only that backs Hornqvist on a regular basis. I completely agree that his skill set and determination are unmatched in the league.

    • Dan Kingerski

      February 27, 2018 at 8:59 am

      I appreciate your continued readership Jay!

  2. il'ja

    February 27, 2018 at 8:43 am

    Incredible skill has everything to do with the Pens’ recent success, but I think it’s safe to say that there’s been a lot of grunt work that has gone into producing this very real chance at a three-peat. As long as that ethos is there – outworking the opponent – this team is going to be tough to beat. If Sid is the heart of that work ethic, Patric is its soul. Great news.

    In 2016, they weren’t going to be tough enough for the big-bodied Rangers/Caps and Shark D-men.
    In 2017, they weren’t going to be tough enough (especially without Tanger!) for the big-bodied BlueJackets/Caps and Pred D-men. Two Stanley Cups later and I’m convinced that #72 stands as Exhibit A for just exactly how tough these Pens are and, for the forseeable future, will be.

  3. David

    February 27, 2018 at 9:00 am

    Is the quote about Vegas costing 2 million in salary accurate?

    Per capfriendly.com

    While Derick Brassard‘s cap hit is 5 million, his signing bonus and salary are 3.5 million this year and next. Doesn’t that mean that the 2 millionn number is a paper number and in reality, Vegas is really paying 500,000 in salary?

    https://www.capfriendly.com/players/derick-brassard

    -Dave

    • Matt Gajtka

      February 27, 2018 at 11:19 am

      Yes, technically Vegas is covering the cap hit, not the actual salary. In hockey terms, the cap hit is what’s important. In business terms, it’s the salary, but it’s not really relevant outside the boardroom.

      • David

        February 27, 2018 at 11:47 am

        I am talking in journalistic terms not hockey or boardroom terms.

        It seems like every article I have read,on multiple sites, has said “2 million salary” not “2 million cap hit”

        Like you said, salary and cap hit are apples and oranges,but it seems like most writers are using the terms like they are apples to apples.

        I asked Pittsburghhockeynow.com because i thought you guys would understand the nuances of my question

        Thanks for your time

  4. dariusm11

    February 27, 2018 at 10:01 am

    I do worry a bit about the out years, but as the article says, championship expectations will likely be different. What I do know is that in the 2014-15 playoffs, the shining light on a flat, undermanned Penguins team was Hornqvist. His incredible consistency is necessary for a team of this skill level that may ebb and flow from game-to-game. Looking forward to his continued presence.

    • Matt Gajtka

      February 27, 2018 at 11:18 am

      He made an impression right from the start, didn’t he? I was VERY skeptical about the Neal deal at first.

  5. Ricardo58

    February 27, 2018 at 10:05 am

    72’s passion, want to and toughness are second to none. His signing is no more risky than the deal with 58 and his 7.25 salary. Theses next 3 games are significant. Team will need 72 more than ever. Go Pens!

  6. Matt Gajtka

    February 27, 2018 at 11:17 am

    They’ve been plenty tough enough … they don’t need a ton of it for how fast they play, but they need some.

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