Predicting what the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Opening Night lineup will look like is risky, at best.
After all, if president of hockey operations/interim GM Kyle Dubas succeeds in acquiring Erik Karlsson from San Jose, the aftershocks will cascade through the roster, as Dubas makes personnel moves to bring the Penguins into compliance with the NHL’s $83.5 million salary-cap ceiling for the coming season.
Given how murky the short-term future is, speculating on what the Penguins’ player needs will be next summer is like trying to hit a dartboard while blindfolded. In a pitch-black room. After spinning violently in a circle 10 times.
After all, there likely will be trades and promotions that shake up the organizational depth chart during the winter ahead. Perhaps a career-altering injury or two. Maybe some guys who will overachieve, or who simply won’t fill their designated role as effectively as envisioned.
One thing Dubas — or whoever he might hire as the permanent GM — apparently won’t have to worry about is having to decide what to do with a lot of prominent players whose contracts expire at the end of June, 2024.
The Penguins, as currently constituted, really have only one of those, first-line left winger Jake Guentzel. With no viable replacements for him in the pipeline, getting Guentzel under contract beyond the coming season presumably will be a priority.
Only three other players who project onto the major-league roster have deals that will be up next summer, and all are members of the supporting cast.
They are forward Jeff Carter, who is unlikely to get another contract, depth defenseman Chad Ruhwedel and two goaltenders who will compete to be Tristan Jarry’s backup, Casey DeSmith and Alex Nedeljkovic. (Unless Jarry is injured, only one of those goalies will be on the major-league roster.)
It’s worth noting that a few other forwards who could challenge for jobs with the Pittsburgh Penguins during training camp, like Andreas Johnsson and Vinnie Hinostroza, also are under contract for just one season, and that depth defenseman Mark Friedman is entering the final year of his deal.
Regardless, unless a seismic shakeup is coming, the Penguins probably won’t have the need — or the salary-cap space — to be especially active in the free-agent market next July. There are, however, some guys who might merit a look to fill specific niches because they’ll be unrestricted if their current teams don’t re-sign them in the next 11 months.
Here’s a sampling:
*** Tyler Bertuzzi. If the Penguins don’t re-sign Guentzel, Bertuzzi might be a good choice to plug onto the left side of the No. 1 line. He surprised many when he agreed to a one-year, $5.5 million contract with Toronto this summer, and a strong season likely would bump up his asking price.
*** Jake DeBrusk. He’s not quite Guentzel’s equal as a goal-scorer — DeBrusk has topped out at 27 twice in his five-year career — but, like his former teammate Bertuzzi, should be able to handle top-line duty. His current deal carries a $4 million cap hit.
*** Tomas Nosek. Can fill a bottom-six role effectively while working in the middle or on the wing. Signed a one-year, $1 million contract with New Jersey this month after Boston had to let him walk because of salary-cap constraints.
*** Liam O’Brien. Although he isn’t likely to rise above the fourth line, O’Brien has good size (6-foot-1, 213 pounds) and plays a physical game, which often can give his team an energy boost.
*** Oskar Sundqvist. He broke into the NHL with the Pittsburgh Penguins after being their second-round draft choice in 2012 before going to St. Louis in the Ryan Reaves trade. Sundqvist has bounced around a bit in recent years and recently accepted a one-year, $775,000 contract to rejoin the Blues. He’s fearless and willing to play the body, which more than compensates for his offensive limitations.