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What is Drew O’Connor Worth & Is Outcome Tied to Penguins Trade?



Pittsburgh Penguins trade talk, Drew O'Connor

It isn’t often that a 25-year-old forward who played only 46 games and scored just five goals could be such an integral piece to a team’s offseason, yet that is where we might find Pittsburgh Penguins restricted free agent Drew O’Connor.

O’Connor filed for arbitration on July 5, and his hearing will be on Aug. 4, the final day of hearings.

For some grim context on the Penguins’ salary-cap situation, reports the Penguins are $1.5 million over the salary cap, with 22 NHL spots filled. puts them $2.3 million over the cap, with all 23 spots filled. Chad Ruhwedel being the seventh defenseman there, while Puckpedia lists only six d-men, is the difference.

CapFriendly is probably more real-world accurate, and removing one of the two backup goalies (Casey DeSmith, Alex Nedeljkovic) means the Penguins are roughly $1.3 million over the cap, with 13 forwards before signing O’Connor.

While O’Connor’s potential remains tantalizing, especially after a breakout stretch in March, his actual totals are less than stellar. He recorded 11 points, including five goals, in 46 games, and doesn’t even rank as an honorable mention among the top 12 unsigned RFAs.

Yet the Penguins are over the cap even before signing Drew O’Connor, whose rights they retained by tendering him a qualifying offer.

Something has to give.

“We don’t see ourselves as over the cap right now, with what we have planned internally,” said Penguins president of hockey operations Kyle Dubas on July 1. “We have a number of ways that we’re compliant right now to start the year.”

Even down to 21 players, the Penguins will be at least $300,000 over the cap, and there are only two options now: A trade in which they send out significantly more salary than they take on, or buy out Mikael Granlund.

A buyout would save the Penguins nearly $4.2 million in 2023-24 and $3.2 million next season before they incur $1.833 million cap penalties for two years.

If there’s a viable third option, Dubas is even more of a magician than anyone knows.

On the surface, O’Connor is a simple story, but the ramifications are much larger and could shape the Penguins’ offseason in multiple ways. Re-signing O’Connor or accepting the arbitrator’s ruling won’t significantly alter the Penguins’ summer, but it will create a second buyout window, which opens for 48 hours on the third day after an arbitration award or agreed-upon contract (and the bought-out player must make more than $4 million).

And then the clock starts ticking.

Is Dubas playing a game of chicken on the NHL trade market, knowing he has the second buyout window as an off-ramp, thus using the O’Connor deal to buy time to complete a trade or trades by kicking the contract down the road as far as possible?

If the Pittsburgh Penguins settle with O’Connor sooner than later, they start the buyout clock, forcing a more immediate decision to buy out or trade Granlund. Not many GMs will help the Penguins out of that tough spot without charging a premium, and the premium would only get higher as the season approaches and the Penguins’ options are depleted.

It’s not the worst plan, but it does put a clock and some pressure on any trades, blockbuster or otherwise, that Dubas may be working.

Ahem, Erik Karlsson.

What is Drew O’Connor Worth?

RFAs are generally worth a bit less, sometimes a lot less, than UFAs. The indentured servitude of restricted free agency has led to just a few players changing teams in the last 17 years.

Over the weekend, the St. Louis Blues signed RFA Alexei Toropchenko to a two-year, $2.5 million deal. Last season, Topchenko had 29 points (10-19-29) in 69 games. The market has been flat for RFAs, and O’Connor figures to get significantly less than a 29-point scorer who appeared in nearly all of his team’s games.

In March, O’Connor showed real power-forward skills, including a strong game in Florida in which he muscled past defensemen toward the net. However, there wasn’t enough of that early in the season for the 6-foot-3, 205-pound forward to earn a lineup spot, and there wasn’t enough ink on the score sheets when he got there.

After an eye-opening run at the IIHF World Championship, where he had eight points (3-5-8) in 10 games, O’Connor could be the Penguins’ breakout player of 2023-24, but RFAs get paid on their production, not on hopes. A 10% raise gives O’Connor an $825,000 salary.

Perhaps the Penguins will reward him with a two-year deal, and buying a year of unrestricted free agency ups the cost to $900,00 per season.

There are 18 days (or less) until we find out if Dubas chooses a trade or buyout to afford O’Connor and a complete NHL lineup.