Penguins Free Agents Updates: Jarry, Zucker & Dumoulin Speak
The Pittsburgh Penguins free agent class is all dressed up but has nowhere to go. Significant pieces of the Penguins puzzle, goalie Tristan Jarry, top-pairing defenseman Brian Dumoulin, and top-six winger Jason Zucker are without contracts.
But there’s no one to begin negotiations.
Dmitry Kulikov, Nick Bonino, Danton Heinen, and Josh Archibald are also UFAs.
Friday, Penguins ownership cleaned house. GM Ron Hextall, AGM Chris Pryror, and president of hockey operations Brian Burke were briskly broomed after the team’s disappointing season and seeming lack of direction.
The Penguins were the oldest team in the NHL at the start of the season, and they only got older at the NHL trade deadline. Hextall acquired three players in their 30s, including 31-year-old Mikael Granlund, whose acquisition from Nashville has been widely panned in NHL hockey circles, including off-the-record conversations with PHN over the past several days.
Granlund’s $5 million AAV is on the books for two more seasons. He had five points (1-4-5) in 21 games with the Penguins but 41 points in 79 games overall.
The Pittsburgh Penguins 2023-24 salary cap structure will include about $23 million to sign or replace their nine players, either UFAs and RFAs. Their restricted list includes Drew O’Connor and Ryan Poehling.
The Penguins’ free agents face an uncertain summer, and roster age remains an issue because most players are under contract for at least 2023-24.
For a team that missed the playoffs, there’s plenty of need to improve but not plenty of space or interest in the signed veterans.
As Jarry pointed out, he wants to stay but must wait his turn in line.
“With what happened with Ron, Brian, and Chris, it’s kind of tough for the free agents. You don’t really have anyone to talk to right now,” said Jarry. “My goal is to stay here. I want to stay here. I’ve only been a Penguin, and I only want to be a Penguin. So that’s my goal, and that’s how I’m going into the offseason.”
The Penguins goalie had an injury-plagued season which limited him to just 46 games and further limited his performance in those 46 games. He dipped to a .909 save percentage, despite being in the .920s at various points in the first half of the season.
The next GM will face a thin goalie market, a tight salary cap, but a pressing need for a top-shelf goalie. One need only look at the New York Islanders. Netminder Ilya Sorokin was the difference between an average team hanging around in the playoff race and being buried in the first half.
The “Jarry decision” will be on the front burner for the next front office.
Jarry’s value or attractiveness is wildly subjective and based on market conditions. A new GM might want to move on just as much as a new GM might see the immense talent combined with a lack of options and pay him market value. Jarry’s situation will have a cascading effect on the NHL free agent market because there isn’t another true No. 1 goalie on the market.
Brian Dumoulin, 31, and his career arc will be the subject of more than a bit of debate. The Penguins’ stalwart defenseman had a brutal beginning to the year and was shuffled around the pairings as his play suffered, possibly from off-season knee surgery.
By mid-year, Dumoulin had rebounded, and despite some ups and downs, he was returned to the top pairing later in the season.
However, he is not the shutdown defender of years past. His $4.1 million AAV contract is expiring, and his value could vary widely based on the suitor.
Coach Mike Sullivan, who is part of the FSG transition team, identified part of his role as identifying team needs. How objective Sullivan could be on the “Dumoulin decision” will be interesting.
At 31, Dumoulin is on the downside, and he’s played a lot of hard minutes on the Penguins’ top pairing.
“(I’ve) spent so much time here in this room, it would be kind of hard to leave,” Dumoulin said. “But obviously, (I’ll) take some time and hopefully get away, and then we can really think about it.”
This might be Dumoulin’s last chance for a substantial contract, and a player can’t pass that up for a “hometown discount” unless the hometown offer is close enough.
Jason Zucker, 31, presents another hard decision with significant risk and potential reward. The winger was the spark and energy for much of the Penguins’ season. Coach Mike Sullivan gave him some of the highest praise earlier this season when he said he “drags us into the fight.”
Zucker had the second-highest goal total of his career (27) and 48 points in 78 games. He was a constant factor in the Penguins’ attack, but injuries have dogged him for the past few seasons. He was primarily healthy for 2022-23, but his health outlook, after a few rocky years, is a consideration.
There is no denying he fit well playing beside Evgeni Malkin on the Penguins’ second line, and he became part of the team’s fabric, if not the heart of it.
“This is a place that I want to be. I said that after the last game, and I reiterate it. I love it here,” Zucker said. “I want to be back. But as of now, it’s obviously out of my control, and we’ll figure it out.”
The uncertainty isn’t confined to the players, but the organization, as the search for a new GM didn’t begin until Friday afternoon. FSG ownership declined to put a timeline on the search or even if they would keep the current structure of the front office.
For now, wants and uncertainty are all that exist.