The Pittsburgh Penguins begin free agency without a pressing need but a need to improve the team, which missed the playoffs for the first time in 17 years. Penguins president of hockey operations Kyle Dubas drew a line through big-name free agents in public comments last week and instead pointed his arrows toward smaller, affordable acquisitions that might be classified as affordable gambles and toward additional Penguins trades.
So, don’t expect Dubas to take a run at Tyler Bertuzzi or Dmitry Orlov.
The Penguins’ primary needs are a third-line center, a left-side defenseman capable of heavy minutes and responsibility, and a starting goalie. A few non-qualified RFAs hit the market Friday evening and could fit the Penguins’ needs, including one from a division rival.
Dubas has indicated trades are as likely, as well. So, if the Penguins don’t find the right value on July 1 or in the free-agent frenzy, expect a few moves down the road.
Penguins Potential 3C Targets:
High End ($4 million+): J.T. Compher. Max Domi.
If the Penguins dedicate $5 million to the third-line center position, Compher would be an excellent pickup. Compher can play wing or center and has the superior speed the Penguins seek. He and the Colorado Avalanche couldn’t agree on a new contract, making him available to the highest bigger. Compher’s knock, beyond contract value, could be on faceoffs, where his career winning percentage is only 48.3%.
Compher, 28, is right-handed, and pending the Penguins’ usage of Jeff Carter, the Penguins need a righty in the middle. Carter is currently the Penguins’ only right-handed center.
Compher might stretch beyond Dubas’ pain tolerance in salary and term, but he could be a solid get if he keeps it within the four-year and under $20 million range. However, development coach Matt Cullen may be called to work on his faceoff prowess.
Max Domi, 28, can be a gritty center, and Dallas used him well as a third-line center in their playoff run. He had 13 points in 19 games in the NHL postseason and was a noticeable factor beyond the Stars’ top line.
For the first time in Domi’s eight-year career, he was well above 50% on the faceoff dot. However, he doesn’t kill penalties, and that’s a problem for a Penguins PK coach Mike Sullivan called “volatile.” Domi is also left-handed, which would give the Penguins three lefty centers and only Jeff Carter with a righty stick.
The lefty thing isn’t necessarily a deal breaker, but all things being even, another right-handed stick in the middle would have advantages.
Middle ($3-4 million): Alexander Kerfoot. Jonathan Toews.
Kerfoot, 28, is a salary cap casualty of the Toronto Maple Leafs. He followed up his 51-point campaign in 2021-22 with only 32 points last season. His contract estimates vary, but $4 million is probably the high end. However, his faceoff prowess is not good (46.5%), and he wasn’t a primary penalty killer in the playoffs. He’s also left-handed.
Toews, 35, is a winner but not someone who will add youth to the Penguins’ lineup. He does kill penalties and win faceoffs, but would he come to Pittsburgh to create a Hall of Fame trio down the middle in which power play opportunities are limited, a large amount of dirty work is needed, and he could be asked to guard the opponents’ top lines rather than getting offensive ice time for himself? Toews had 31 points (15-16-31) in 53 games last season and probably has one more good run left. It seems likely he’ll pick a Stanley Cup contender, if available. If not, perhaps playing with Crosby is attractive. He is also left-handed.
Bargain Options: Sam Steel. Morgan Geekie. Michael McLeod.
Sam Steel, 25, was a first-round pick in 2016. He’s fast and has offensive instincts, as evidenced by high totals in juniors and the AHL. However, his game went sideways, like everyone else’s, in Anaheim before playing last season with Minnesota. He managed 28 points in 65 games and was a tertiary penalty killer in both Anaheim and Minnesota. His advanced stats were about 52%, including shot attempts and scoring chances. The lefty was about 49% on faceoffs.
Morgan Geekie: Non-qualified by the Seattle Kraken on Friday, Geekie posted a career-high nine goals and 28 points and was a plus-14. He’s also right-handed, kills penalties, and has a career faceoff percentage over 50%.
Geekie, who turns 25 this month, adds youth and size. He’s 6-foot-3, 192 pounds, and not a bad skater. There’s a lot to like about Geekie, who grew into his role with the Kraken, but he has a limited ceiling. He’s not a primary penalty killer, but he is right-handed.
I do not mean to pry, but you don’t by any chance happen to have six fingers on your right hand?
Michael McLeod is an unabashed Penguins’ killer with the New Jersey Devils, who did not qualify the RFA, making him a UFA. It seems the center saved his best for the Penguins. Last season, the right-handed center scored four goals and 22 assists and won 60.3% of his faceoffs. He was third in the league on the faceoff dots.
McLeod was the 12th pick in the 2016 NHL Draft but continues to improve after a slow start to his career. He’s fast, has a bit of grit in his game, and kills penalties. If you’re reading the advanced stats, last season, he was above 50% across the board for the first time in his five-year career.
McLeod made $975,000 last season and could be the definition of a diamond in the rough as he continues to grow into a defensive center role.