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Penguins Offseason Analysis

Pittsburgh Penguins Free Agency: The Top 5 PTO Candidates



Penguins Free Agent Targets Valeri Nichushkin
ST. LOUIS, MO - MARCH 02: Dallas Stars rightwing Valeri Nichushkin (43) during an NHL game between the Dallas Stars and the St. Louis Blues on March 02, 2019, at Energizer Center, St. Louis, MO. (Photo by Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire)

The Pittsburgh Penguins currently cannot afford a free lunch, and they have a roster full of players with NHL contracts including three goalies. Such a salary cap predicament and crowded roster do not usually create the optimum sales literature for prospective free agents but the Penguins also have unparalleled opportunities to offer unsigned free agents trying to stay in the NHL. The chance to play for a recent Stanley Cup winner which is pushing to return and potential openings beside Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin could make the Penguins an exciting option.

The professional tryout offer (PTO) season has begun after the Boston Bruins reportedly inked defenseman Alex Petrovic to a tryout deal. A little stick tap to our colleagues in Boston for the scoop.

With one month to training camp, hope for a contract begins to fade and hope for an opportunity rises. Petrovic has played nearly 300 NHL games in his career yet because of the league-wide cap crunch he had to settle for merely a chance with Boston.

There are more than a handful of NHL regulars who remain without a contract and could be PTO fodder. In average years, they would likely have a deal, but with the static salary cap, teams are being forced pay on Tuesday for a hamburger today (Popeye reference).

For the record, we considered Derick Brassard who could be a top-six left wing, as he wanted to be last season and in a brief stint showed well, but for a variety of reasons we left him off the list. Surely someone will sign him to an NHL contract, and the odds of him returning to Pittsburgh seem remote.

It should also be noted: There is likely one major change coming to the Penguins roster before the start of the season which will allow the team to afford RFA defenseman, Marcus Pettersson. So, the Penguins may have an unrevealed incentive to invite players to their training camp.

5. Ben Lovejoy, 35, D

Lovejoy may be at the end of the road. He was never swift, and age may render him a step behind. Last season, the steady defenseman had just nine points in 71 games for Dallas. The former Penguins defenseman signed a three-year, $8 million contract with the New Jersey Devils after helping the Penguins win the 2016 Stanley Cup. The deal has expired but teams have not lined up to sign Lovejoy to another.

Lovejoy’s work with the Penguins young, mishmash defense in 2016 was widely praised including his work with Brian Dumoulin. Pending the changes GM Jim Rutherford has up his sleeve, Lovejoy could be a serviceable stopgap option and 7th defenseman if he were to make the team.

4. Tobias Rieder, 26, F

A perfect PTO candidate for an organization which may be short of offensive weapons. Rieder scored double-digit goals in three straight seasons with Arizona and LA (14, 16, 12) before tanking in Edmonton last season. Reider scored just 11 points and no goals in Edmonton after signing a one-year, $2 million contract.

Rieder has playmaking skills and some ability to finish. The mold is probably set for the German-born player, but maybe not. A PTO costs only time.

3. Michael Stone, 29, D

The big defenseman who played the last three seasons in Calgary is still without a job but should have an NHL contract. This is a player who could be brought into an NHL team’s training camp on a wink and nod PTO with the promise of a contract once other salary cap issues are settled. Stone is a right-handed defenseman with an all-around game, but low point production.

Stone scored five points (0g, 5a) in 14 games last season, but has 439 career games and 117 points (29g, 88a) on his resume. On Aug. 1, the Calgary Flames bought out the final year of Stone’s $3.5 million AAV contract. Given the Penguins struggles to find right-side help last season, an extra righty able to handle the NHL grind would not be the worst thing to have in the press box.

2. Drew Stafford, 33, RW

Stafford has not produced in New Jersey. After a 21-goal season for the Winnipeg Jets in 2015-16, the power forward signed a two-year, $8.7 million contract in Winnipeg. The following season, he scored just eight goals and was traded to Boston. In each of the last two seasons, he has signed a one-year contract with the New Jersey Devils for just over $800,000.

He has scored just 13 goals in New Jersey, which makes him a prime candidate for a PTO and a chance to prove himself, again, beside competent centers. Stafford is 6-foot-2, 214 pounds and likes to play in the dirty areas. Stafford may not have much left, or he may need to be revived. The Penguins are shorthanded in the goal-scoring area, and Stafford could be a great comeback story.

 1. Valeri Nichushkin, 24, RW

The talented Russian player has bounced back and forth between the NHL and KHL. Last season, he bottomed out with Dallas and had just 10 points in 57 games, including zero goals. Dallas bought out Nichushkin in late June.

Since Nichushkin has not yet signed with a KHL team, one must assume he wants to make a go in the NHL. There isn’t a big market for inconsistent players who haven’t produced, but Nichushkin has played just 223 NHL games and is only 24-years-old. If only the Penguins had one of the greatest Russian players of all-time and indeed of the 21st century, and an assistant coach with experience shepherding young Russian players.

Nichuskin has plenty of tools in the toolbox: Speed, creativity, and size (6-foot-4, 210 pounds). He could be a bonafide NHL top-six forward but has not yet come close. He did score 14 goals and 20 assists in his rookie season, 2013-14. However, he hasn’t been within shouting distance to those totals in three more seasons with Dallas, separated by a stint in the KHL.

A PTO for Nichuskin could be the ultimate low-risk, high-reward move. Whether Nichuskin would accept a PTO offer is another matter but there would be no better landing place than Pittsburgh for the young player trying to find his way.