The Pittsburgh Penguins have a trio of unsigned defensemen: Restricted free agents Justin Schultz, Brian Dumoulin and unrestricted free agent Trevor Daley. Nearly all NHL clubs shy away from targeting RFA’s, so Schultz and Dumoulin are in little danger of being plucked away. However, second pairing right-side defenseman Daley could be a loss, which leaves a giant hole in the Penguins lineup and the team looking to free agent defensemen.
Complicating matters will be Kris Letang‘s recovery from disc surgery which could keep Letang out through the start of the season, at least.
Daley is the Penguins top priority. The fast skating, right side offensive defenseman will be highly sought. In the free-agent pecking order, Daley is behind the top available blue line target, Kevin Shattenkirk, but should be well ahead of the second tier of candidates… who may become the Penguins’ consolation prize.
Daley has been well received in Pittsburgh, but he’ll be 34 at the start of next season and big pieces of Stanley Cup winners are usually paid handsomely. Penguins General Manager Jim Rutherford last week said he hopes the Stanley Cup entices players like Daley and Nick Bonino to stay but acknowledged “players also want a payday.”
Daley figures to receive a few offers for a “payday”.
Sunday began the NHL early contact period between teams and free agents. No contracts may be signed and negotiations aren’t supposed to occur. However, anytime a couple lawyers are alone in a room, one assumes conversations with words unsaid take place. Thus, NHL players have some idea who is really interested and who isn’t, when contracts are offered on July 1.
In between the top tier and the pool of second-tier candidates is Calgary Flames second pair rearguard Michael Stone. Stone isn’t a speedy offensive force. He is an all-around defenseman who added 15 points in 64 games, last season split between Phoenix and Calgary. At 6-foot-3, 210 pounds, Stone is a big body who is also able to be a physical presence in his own zone.
Stone made 3.1 million dollars last season. The 28-year-old could look to maximize this contract as his last large deal. Since the market is weak, he is likely out of the Penguins budget, unless the Penguins part with one of Schultz, Dumoulin or Maatta.
In other words, not likely.
Del Zotto’s inconsistent play and some past questions about his attitude make him an unlikely target. Cross him off the list.
Back-Up Plan: Dmitry Kulikov
Kulikov was the Florida Panthers first round selection in 2009, 14th overall. The Buffalo Sabres acquired Kulikov last summer, in hopes he would become the solid top pairing defenseman. He did not, and instead frustrated head coach Dan Bylsma.
Kulikov had just five points in 47 games, yet was a -26. Reread: Minus 26
The Russian defenseman cracked the Panthers lineup as a rookie in 2009 and has scored between 19 and 28 points every full season, except last year.
Kulikov is somewhat reminiscent of Justin Schultz. A strong skater with a good point shot who likes to pinch, but is sometimes confused in the defensive zone. If the Penguins cannot re-sign Daley, Kulikov may be the next project handed to Sergei Gonchar.
Kulikov’s drawbacks are being left handed, wildly inconsistent, and as a Russian there is a question if he will he bolt for the Olympics
Back-Up Plan: Brendan Smith
Smith struggled to maintain solid production in Detroit, under both coaches Mike Babcock and Jeff Blashil, but was acquired by the defense-starved Rangers at the 2017 Trade Deadline.
The wanna-be offensive defenseman likes to crash the offensive zone and throw the body. His toolbox is full and that could attract the Penguins. Like Kulikov, Smith squandered an opportunity to establish first or second pair credentials last season. Smith was instead inconsistent.
Smith is left-handed, which makes the right side more challenging, but Smith may need the least work of the available defensemen.
As insurance, Justin Schultz showed in the playoffs he is able to handle second pairing work. Schultz’ progression in the defensive zone last season was remarkable.
Without a plethora of options, the Penguins may choose depth. If the Penguins aren’t able to lasso Daley, Ian Cole-Schultz, and Maatta with one of the above could provide two solid pairings behind Dumoulin-Letang.
Unfortunately for the Penguins, there aren’t many options. Supply-Demand. So, the price for any option will rise beyond fair market value.
Stay Tuned–PittsburghHockeyNOW.com will be breaking free-agent news as available…