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Keep or Let Walk? How Penguins Should Handle Arbitration-Eligible RFAs

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Pittsburgh Penguins, P.O Joseph

Kyle Dubas addressed the Pittsburgh Penguins’ most prominent free-agent issue in early March 4, when he traded first-line left winger Jake Guentzel to Carolina.

Dubas still has to make decisions about whether to retain a number of players, most of whom fill supporting roles, whose contracts are about to expire. That list got a bit shorter Friday, when winger Valtteri Puustinen, who was to be a Group 6 unrestricted free agent, accepted a two-year deal.

Some, like goalie Alex Nedeljkovic and defenseman Ryan Shea, will be UFAs, and a few prospects will be of the standard-issue restricted variety, which means the Penguins can retain their rights by simply extending a qualifying offer.

But there is an intriguing subset of the RFAs — the ones eligible for salary arbitration — and the Penguins have a couple who they presumably would be particularly interested in retaining.

Although none of those guys have an inordinate amount of leverage, the current makeup of the team’s organizational depth chart gives them at least a little.

Given that there’s no way of knowing how an arbitrator’s decision will go, arbitration is risky for both parties, which is why contracts generally are worked out before a hearing takes place. That’s what happened with Penguins forward Drew O’Connor in 2023.

Here are the five players in the Pittsburgh Penguins’ organization who will be RFAs with arbitration rights if they’re not re-signed by July 1, and where they might fit in the team’s plans.

Corey Andonovski

Current salary-cap hit: $925,000 ($80,000 in minors)
Role and contributions: Andonovski drew interest from a number of clubs when he signed with the Penguins as a free agent after spending three seasons at Princeton, but has yet to make it out of the American Hockey League in two-plus pro seasons. His stats in Wilkes-Barre last season — seven goals and 23 assists in 63 games — were modest, and it’s hard to see him as anything more than organizational depth as a bottom-six winger at this point.
Course to follow: Given the paucity of prospects in the organization, bringing Andonovski back on a team-friendly, two-way contract might not be a bad idea.

Emil Bemstrom

Current salary-cap hit: $900,000
Role and contributions: The Penguins acquired Bemstrom from Columbus for a sixth-round draft choice to enhance their middle-six offense, but he scored just three times in 24 games and was a healthy scratch three times. Although he has an impressive shot, it has produced just 34 goals in 228 NHL games.
Course to follow: Bemstrom turns 25 June 1, so he probably is far from a finished product. Although the lack of NHL-caliber talent depth in the organization works to his favor, the Penguins should not be generous if they try to retain him and should not be willing to go to arbitration to make that happen.

Jonathan Gruden

Current salary-cap hit: $775,000 ($100,000 in minors)
Role and contributions: There’s no real evidence that Gruden will ever progress beyond the blue-collar duties of a fourth-line forward, but teams need guys who can do things like kill penalties.
Course to follow: He’s worth keeping on the payroll, even though he likely will spend at least a little time commuting between PPG Paints Arena and Wilkes-Barre. It’s pretty much inconceivable that he would consider taking the Penguins to arbitration.

P.O Joseph

Current salary-cap hit: $825,000
Role and contributions: While still a work-in-progress, Joseph ultimately proved to be a pretty nice fit alongside Kris Letang on the top (No. 2?) defense pairing. He still can get stronger and realize some more of his offensive potential, but he’s eliminated doubts about his ability to be a regular at this level.
Course to follow: There’s no question the Penguins should re-sign Joseph, although things could get interesting if he would become unhappy with how negotiations are proceeding and would file for arbitration.

Jack St. Ivany

Current salary-cap hit: $857.500 ($82,500 in minors)
Role and contributions: While 14 games isn’t much of a sample size, St. Ivany showed enough during his late-season trial to be a solid choice to start next season on the No. 3 defense pairing. He meshed nicely with Shea, who is eligible for unrestricted free agency, and added some much-needed physicality to the Pittsburgh Penguins’ blue line.
Course to follow: St. Ivany’s limited experience at this level means he shouldn’t have much leverage in negotiations. Assuming Dubas liked what he saw — and it’s hard to see why he wouldn’t have — he might be able to lock up St. Ivany at a nice price for more than a year or two.

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Stanley Kupp
Stanley Kupp
8 days ago

Even though he’s unrestricted, I’d like to keep Shea around unless Dubas is going to go out and get a big bruising defenseman somewhere.

Mike
Mike
8 days ago
Reply to  Stanley Kupp

I do think Shea can be a good depth piece but I agree he’s expendable if Dubas
address our need for toughness on the back end.

Matthew Caddy
Matthew Caddy
8 days ago

Let Andonovski and Bemstrom walk. Sign St. Ivany and Gurden. Sign then trade Joseph. His value will never be higher. Bring back Shea for depth and how well he meshed with JSI.

Robert Shoemaker
Robert Shoemaker
8 days ago

All of them are worth signing at the right price. The only one that he should let walk is Bemstrom. He was thoroughly unimpressive in every way and should probably be in the minors or in Europe.

Brian X
Brian X
8 days ago

Only POJ and St. Ivany.

David
David
8 days ago

Wow anyone watching the playoffs so far. The uncalled hits are getting violent. I guess it will go until there is a terrible injury to a player

Stanley Kupp
Stanley Kupp
8 days ago
Reply to  David

Another Trouba flying elbow that just missed. Should have been thrown out anyway. I hope the league gets sued and loses one day. To them player safety is something to be ignored.

William Maloni
William Maloni
7 days ago
Reply to  David

How about holding, grabbing, and plain old “interference away from the puck?”

Smb
Smb
7 days ago
Reply to  David

See the big whiff on Kuznetsov was hilarious. Trouba waived his elbow out there and Kuznetsov skated by with no impact.