It won’t be easy, and there will be competition. The Pittsburgh Penguins are no longer Stanley Cup favorites, and affordable players have a unique advantage in the flat cap environment because, for the first time in their careers, they are in demand. As the free agency window opens on Wednesday, the Penguins have a lot of holes and not enough Flex Seal to fix them without using some cheap options.
One spot the Penguins may try a committee of approach or try for a low-cost-high-value option is a right defenseman. Cody Ceci was very good for the Penguins and played perhaps his best hockey in the last several years. He earned a big contract, and while his fit with defense partner Mike Matheson and the team was undeniable, his fit under the salary cap is doubtful.
According to our friends at PuckPedia.com, the Penguins have about $7.4 million of salary-cap space but only 18 players under contract. Zach Aston-Reese will command some of that money, and the Penguins must replace Jared McCann and Brandon Tanev and a RHD.
Lots of holes and not enough money to do it all well.
So, we’ve scoured the free-agent heaps for RHDs who could fit the Pittsburgh Penguins’ needs and budget, which might come down to counting pennies on the counter.
The Penguins do have John Marino firmly secured. For fiscal savings, it shouldn’t be an issue to slide him onto the second pair with Matheson and find a third-pair player for well less cost than a second-pairing defenseman.
With Mark Friedman also waiting in the wings, the Penguins may choose to kick the can down the road and try to save money here.
Bargain Bin UFA RHD Defensemen
One of our favorites who would check a couple of the Pittsburgh Penguins boxes. Gudbranson was a surprisingly good puck mover when he arrived in Pittsburgh from Vancouver in 2019 and kept Washington Capitals tough guy Tom Wilson on his best behavior. Win-win.
Gudbranson. 29, didn’t pile on the points in 29 games with the Penguins. He played third-pair minutes, and that meant healthy ice time with the bottom six. In 2018-19, the Penguins bottom six was not the same successful group that it was in 2020-21. In fact, the Penguins were still searching for a third-line center with Nick Bjugstad and Jared McCann.
Neither lit up the scoreboard in Gubranson’s tenure, and he posted only two assists in 26 games.
But that belied his impact. The big defenseman could be the net-clearing, hard-nosed player the Penguins need on a budget they can afford. He won’t get another $4 million AAV contract like the one that is expiring and his transient career since the Penguins trade to Anaheim.
Remember Gudbranson teaching Brian Dumoulin how to fight?
We expect “Guddy” to land in the $2 million range.
Pysyk, 29, is a dual threat from the bottom of the salary rolls. He can be a steady and smooth third-pair defenseman with good puck skills or a fourth-liner to chip in a bit of offense. There’s no sandpaper to Pysyk’s game, and he won’t win those net-front battles, but he’s a $1 million player who can fill a few roles and do so with a team-first mentality.
The former Florida Panther utility knife scored four points (1-3-4) for the Dallas Stars last season after the previous four with Florida. The 6-foot-1, 196-pound defenseman isn’t going to knock heads at the net, but with a little puck management, fewer opponents will get there.
He’s a $1 million type of player.
This is a tough one.
Vatanen, 30, was previously seen as a physical defenseman capable of more than he’s produced in recent memory. The smallish Finn (5-foot-10, 185 pounds) has a little grit to his game and a touch of offense, too.
In 2017-18, he scored 32 points in 72 games split between New Jersey and Anaheim. Last season his minutes dropped in New Jersey. He was traded to Dallas and didn’t score a point in nine games with the Stars.
In a thin market, will a GM pay for the 2018 Vatanen?
Given the rollercoaster of the last two seasons, Vatanen is a budget call. Perhaps he fits, perhaps he doesn’t. We’re inclined to think his salary will outpace his value, but he’s someone to keep an eye on. Penguins GM Ron Hextall hinted the Penguins would be watching players into August.
If Vatanen lingers, he could be a solid addition and a defenseman capable of second-pair minutes. And, who knows, perhaps another Ceci-like reclamation with head coach Mike Sullivan and assistant coach Todd Reirden.
He’s 27-years-old so he could command a longer-term deal which will further keep his cost down. However, he’s looking for his third team in 6 months and fourth team in four seasons. PHN liked his game with the Buffalo Sabres after head coach Don Granato turned them loose. Montour was aggressive on the walls and tough near his net.
That’s what the Pittsburgh Penguins need.
The solid second-half doesn’t erase his inconsistent play for good portions of his career, but it does balance his decline in offensive production. Like Vatanen, PHN expects to be surprised by Montour’s contract on the open market. Despite the possibility of an unexpected payday, if the Penguins were to dish a longer contract on a RHD, Montour would be an excellent candidate.
Perhaps his market value could be in the $3 million range, which makes him affordable-ish.
Of course, Twitter may rant and scream about analytics with any of the above choices, but if the hockey twitter priests and priestesses weren’t unhappy, what would be the point of Twitter?