The Pittsburgh Penguins are lucky. Rookie defenseman John Marino will not be eligible for the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft, and the Penguins won’t have to protect him from the Seattle Whatchamacallits. The yet-unnamed Seattle franchise, however, figures to have a good selection of talent from the Pittsburgh Penguins roster thanks to the emergency of young forwards and defensemen.
The Penguins will be able to protect eight skaters and one goalie or seven forwards, three defensemen, and a goalie. Last summer, we took a swing at the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft, but Marino dramatically changed our calculus. His play and emergence mean the Penguins could keep their top-four intact because Marino will be a second-year professional and exempt from the draft.
So, let’s set aside the obvious protections: Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jake Guentzel, Kris Letang, Brian Dumoulin.
New 20-goal scorer Bryan Rust and Jason Zucker are likely locks, too. Add Marcus Pettersson to the list, and the Penguins have two more forward spots to lock up, and this is where the tough decisions begin.
The Penguins only get to chose two from the remaining list of players, which include: Jared McCann, Patric Hornqvist, Teddy Blueger, Brandon Tanev, Zach Aston-Reese, Dominik Simon, and anyone else the Penguins may add to the 2020-21 team will at risk.
Would the Penguins protect Brandon “Turbo” Tanev at the expense of veteran leader and power-play spark Patric Hornqvist? If McCann has another ordinary year, would the Penguins leave him exposed? And what of Teddy Blueger, whose line has been the only constant in the 2019-20 season?
Seattle GM Ron Francis
First, examine the opponent. Seattle GM Ron Francis built Carolina slowly and methodically, too slowly, according to the new Carolina ownership. Francis assembled a fast, agile, and offensive blue line, but cobbled together a forwards crew without stars or purebred scorers.
Sebastian Aho was on his way but arrived too late to save Francis in Carolina. Otherwise, Justin Williams, Eric and Jordan Staal, and Jeff Skinner headlined the Carolina attack during Francis’ tenure.
Carolina was perennially a competitive team with good skating ability but lacked physical grit or pushback. Carolina gave the Penguins fits because they could skate with the Penguins, but other teams were able to grind up Carolina.
The Carolina push from the blue line neutralized teams which were too aggressive, but Carolina was an ingredient or two short from being a good team.
The Vegas expansion proved a team can win immediately. So, NHL teams probably won’t be throwing draft picks and generosity towards Francis as they did Vegas GM, George McPhee. The immediacy also means Francis may snag a few older veterans capable of leadership and production.
Hornqvist will be 34-years-old and will have just completed the third year of a five-year contract. His energy and iron will have made him an indispensable piece of the Pittsburgh Penguins resurgence of the last four years, but he will also turn 35 years old on Jan. 1, 2021.
Francis lacked a player like Hornqvist in Carolina. Could he see a chance to add a veteran leader, locker room glue and grit all in one package?
Hornqvist’s Penguins future depends on two factors. He must remain healthy and productive. If Hornqvist remains an asset to the Penguins, they have every reason to protect him. Third and fourth line wingers are luxuries, but Hornqvist’s power-play work sets him above other bottom-six wingers. So, too, does Hornqvist’s ability to play in the Penguins top six.
The crazy Viking plays with reckless abandon, and his $5 million salary doesn’t help the Penguins bottom line, but he helps the team on the ice. He was on pace to again score 20-goals this season and those are hard goals to replace.
The Penguins are still in “win-now” mode, so a 35 or 36-year old who scores 20 goals isn’t a problem.
Best guess: Hornqvist is protected unless he regresses next season. That’s a real concern.
Questions abound about McCann’s future. He could be the Penguins third line center for a long time, or he could fade into the background as an expendable depth player.
McCann had a chance to assert himself as a top-six left winger, but injuries forced McCann to the middle, then the Penguins acquired Jason Zucker. So, the left side is full, at least on the scoring lines.
McCann is absolutely a Francis-type player. He’s responsible. He’s fast. And, he’s versatile. But McCann is also a Mike Sullivan, Penguins-type player, too.
Expected third-line center Nick Bjugstad has one more year left on his contract, and McCann needs a new deal this summer. The town probably isn’t big enough for both of them. The expectation is 2020-21 will be a “show me” year for McCann, which determines his future.
Best guess: He’ll be protected, but not if the Penguins acquire additional talent elsewhere in the lineup.
The Rest / Unexpected
The Penguins are short one top-six RW. Conor Sheary and Dominik Simon are not long term answers, though Simon is likely to stick around as an affordable stop-gap and player able to bring offense to lower lines.
Should Penguins GM Jim Rutherford find this unicorn to play beside Sidney Crosby, that player will be protected, and the rest will be left to the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft. Finding that player has been a tough task, however.
Tanev and Blueger lead the rest of the pack. If McCann doesn’t assert himself next season and the Penguins don’t have to protect an additional scorer, Tanev probably gets the spot. His speed, tenacity, and physicality are a rare breed, even if he has too much energy for Kris Letang.
However, Tanev is a fourth-liner. He is a premier player in his role, but a third-line center is more valuable. Also, the Penguins proved for two-plus seasons after letting Nick Bonino leave via free agency, finding a third-line center isn’t an easy task.
Should Hornqvist slow, the Penguins would be wise to leave Hornqvist unprotected, assuming Francis will not pluck a 35-year-old making north of $5 million, and protect Tanev.
Blueger is a homegrown talent and won’t be easy to replace, but affordable replacements exist. Blueger hasn’t provided enough offense to be indispensable, or even to worry that Seattle would grab him up.
The Pittsburgh Penguins defense would also leave Jack Johnson exposed. Though Johnson is not a Francis type defenseman and his $3.25 million annual cap hit makes him a no-go, unless the Penguins sacrifice an asset to compel Seattle to select Johnson.
In goal, Casey DeSmith is most likely the goalie which will be exposed. He’ll need to play NHL games next season, but given the Penguins pending crunch in goal, he’s a likely NHL backup again, or at least will play a few games due to injury.
Actually, after going through the exercise, the decisions weren’t that tough.
Projected 2021 Pittsburgh Penguins Lines