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Penguins Free Agency Primer: Kunitz Highlights Left Wings

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Michael Grabner (left), Chris Kunitz (center), Anthony DucLair (right): Photos courtesy of NHL , Getty Images

With a few deft moves this week, Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford cleared cap space, locked up free agent center Riley Sheahan and has a likely agreement with defenseman Jack Johnson pending the official start of free agency.

Rutherford has restricted free agent Jamie Oleksiak and bottom-six left wings on deck. Based on Capfriendly.com, The Penguins currently have just over $8 million cap space remaining. However, that doesn’t count the Johnson signing, which brings the Penguins down to about $4.5 million. As a potential top-four defenseman with a checkered career, Oleksiak figures to earn somewhere north of $2 million but south of $3 million.

Currently, some combination of Dominik Simon, Zach Aston-Reese, and Bryan Rust would be forced to fill the bottom two left wing spots. All three of those players have played more right wing, and are more suited to being right wings, which leaves at least one hole in the lineup at LW.

So, the Penguins have about $2 million. Maybe as much as $2.4 million left in the petty cash drawer to complete the lineup. Some of the names below are speculation and a pair have already been tied to the Penguins. 

Potential LW Targets:

1. Chris Kunitz

It’s an understatement to say Kunitz would like to return to Pittsburgh. There is strong interest from the player’s side but the team hasn’t yet tipped its hand, in part because Kunitz will turn 39-years-old before the season begins. Kunitz had a solid season with the Tampa Bay Lightning but in speaking with people inside the Penguins organization, their interest level is hard to gauge.

The lack of available options could push the Penguins in Kunitz’ direction. In the 2018 Eastern Conference Final, Kunitz showed the speed and fire for Tampa Bay which could help the Penguins. As the Washington Capitals began to physically punish Tampa Bay, Kunitz was one of the few players able to push back. The Penguins could use a little of more that.

Guestimated 2018-19 Salary: $2 million

2. Matt Calvert

The Penguins should be familiar with Calvert, as a veteran of division rival Columbus Blue Jackets. Calvert has been a staple in the Columbus bottom-six forwards and a thorn in many sides. Calvert, 28, is only 5-foot-11 and 186 pounds, but his heart is at least half of that weight. The gritty winger can kill penalties and works well in the corners.

Calvert’s offensive output is limited, which makes him an ideal third or fourth line left wing. Colorado is reportedly interested, and the price tag for Calvert may exceed the Penguins’ wallet but the fit would be undeniable. Calvert tied a career-best with 24 points (9g, 15a) last season.

Guestimated 2018-19 Salary: $3 million

3. Anthony DucLair

As PHN’s Matt Gajtka reported earlier this week, the Penguins touched base with DucLair after the Chicago Blackhawks declined to tender a qualifying offer, but nothing more is known.

DucLair’s stock has fallen since his 20-goal rookie season with Arizona in 2015-16. In 2016-17 he slumped to five goals and spent weeks in the AHL. Last season DucLair split time between Arizona and Chicago. He posted 23 points (11g, 12a) but only eight points in 23 games with Chicago. DucLair can play both wings but is not a physical presence. He has speed and a great shot but needs to assert himself more.

He could be a great fit with the Penguins and reclaim his rookie season potential. However, his soft play also means if he isn’t scoring, he doesn’t possess enough value to merit a roster spot. Perhaps a soft market could mean a two-way deal which would be ideal for the Penguins.

Guestimated 2018-19 Salary: $900,000.

4. Michael Grabner

Grabner, 30, has played both RW and LW, so he could solve the Penguins left side issues quickly. However, after a 27-goal season split between the New York Rangers and New Jersey, Grabner will not be cheap. The Penguins would surely relish the opportunity to unleash a forecheck with the oppressive speeds of Carl Hagelin, Bryan Rust, and Michael Grabner.

Grabner’s finishing skills returned after a three-year hiatus from 2012-2015. The Austria native has marked consecutive 27-goal seasons and is one of the fastest skaters in the NHL.

Unfortunately for Pittsburgh, there are plenty of suitors for Grabner’s service. He has entered the arena in which we could see a ridiculous contract tender. The Penguins would need to move additional salary to fit Grabner, and the Penguins are nearly out of high salary players who aren’t part of the core. Hagelin may be the last one left. If the Penguins are truly interested, they could be forced into a Hagelin or Grabner decision.

It just doesn’t seem likely but that shouldn’t stop the Penguins from dreaming.

Guestimated 2018-19 Salary: $5 million

5. Conor Brickley

Brickey, 26, failed to establish his game in Florida and is a free agent, again. The forward has strong legs and can work the corners but lacks consistency. Last season, in 44 games Brickley scored 12 points (4g, 8a). That type of output would make him a high scoring addition to the Penguins fourth line.

Those 44 games were Brickley’s first real taste of the NHL. He played four years of college hockey at Vermont and was part of Team USA at the 2012 World Juniors Championships. The Massachusetts native had a big rookie year in the AHL, in 2014-15. Brickley scored 47 points, including 22 goals for the San Antonio Rampage, but has not since duplicated those totals.

He could be an inexpensive gamble with little downside that turns into a big upside.

Guestimated 2018-19 Salary: $750,000 two-way deal.

6. Daniel Carr

Carr, 26, has long interested this writer. He is not fast nor initiates a lot of body checks, but he plays strong in the dirty areas and can contribute offensively. At 6-foot tall, he is average but scored 16 points (6g, 10a) in 44 games, mostly from Montreal’s bottom line.

He is one of a long line of prospects which has languished in Montreal. Like Brickley, Carr also played four years of collegiate hockey (Union). He is another low-risk potential for the Penguins.

Guestimated 2018-19 Salary: $750,000 two-way deal.

 

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Pittsburgh Hockey Now owner, formerly 93.7 The Fan, Sportsnet Hockey Tonight. Catch Dan tweeting @theDanKingerski and the official @pghhockeynow account.

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