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How Would Penguins Replace Free Agents Who Depart?



PIttsburgh Penguins, Jason Zucker, Carolina Hurricanes

Seven players on the Pittsburgh Penguins’ roster when their season ended last month are eligible for unrestricted free agency this summer.

Which of them the team will try to retain is hard to say, since those decisions will be made by a general manager who has yet to be hired.

Still, it’s not too early to begin considering possible replacements for guys who might be moving on, regardless of whose choice it would be.

What follows is, by almost any measure, a fanciful exercise, because it’s hard to imagine that all of the Penguins’ pending UFAs would depart, and chances are that the next GM will try to fill at least a few of whatever vacancies are created via trades or from inside the organization.

Still, here are some ideas for straight one-for-one “trades” of free agents who were with the Penguins in 2022-23 for those who played elsewhere, with all concerned having fairly similar salary-cap hits during the past season:

Josh Archibald

Role: Fourth-line right winger, penalty-killer
2022-23 Salary-cap hit: $900,000

Replacement: Brett Ritchie, Calgary
Rationale: Archibald has some obvious offensive limitations, but he’s feisty and fearless, and the Pittsburgh Penguins could use more of both qualities.

Ritchie, who will turn 30 July 1, isn’t much of a point-producer, either, but he’s big (6 foot 4, 220 pounds) and, every now and then, actually plays like it.

While it’s probably not realistic to expect him to suddenly become a physical force, shift-in and shift-out, pretty much any infusion of size and muscle would be a good thing for the Penguins.

Nick Bonino

Role: Fourth-line center, penalty-killer
2022-23 Salary-cap hit: $1.025 million

Replacement: Devin Shore, Edmonton
Rationale: Bonino was a trade-deadline addition and. unless the Penguins manage to find a taker for Jeff Carter, they might not move to fill the slot Bonino was in until the 2024 deadline approaches, assuming they are buyers then.

The Penguins always value versatility, and Shore can play wing or center. He doesn’t make it onto the scoresheet very often, but is a solid faceoff man and good penalty-killer, which is what the Penguins were looking for when they brought Bonino back.

Brian Dumoulin

Role: Left-side defenseman, No. 1 pairing
2022-23 Salary-cap hit: $4.1 million

Replacement: Ryan Graves, New Jersey.
Rationale: Dumoulin, at his best, was an ideal partner for Kris Letang, furnishing the defensive yin to Letang’s offensive yang, allowing Letang to take advantage of his skills in the attacking zone.

Graves, currently partnering with Penguins alum John Marino on the Devils’ No. 2 pairing, plays a style that would dovetail nicely with Letang’s and, at 6 foot 5, 220 pounds, would bring some heft to a blue line that would benefit from some more muscle.

Of course, for all of those reasons, if the Penguins would opt to pursue him this summer, they should expect to have plenty of company.

Danton Heinen

Role: Bottom-six winger
2022-23 Salary-cap hit: $1 million

Replacement: Zach Aston-Reese, Toronto
Rationale: Heinen and Aston-Reese, who earned a contract from the Maple Leafs after going to training camp on a tryout, are very different players. Heinen’s forte is offense, while Aston-Reese’s game is built on a foundation of sound defense.

Aston-Reese actually would be a better fit than Heinen for that particular niche. He could be deployed on the third line or, if Drew O’Connor is ready to move up to that unit on a permanent basis, drop down to the fourth.

Regardless of where he is deployed, Aston-Reese would give the Pittsburgh Penguins solid defensive work and upgrade their penalty-kill, which was a major disappointment in 2022-23. Oh, and he actually scored more goals than Heinen (10-8) this season.

Tristan Jarry

Role: No. 1 goaltender
2022-23 Salary-cap hit: $3.5 million

Replacement: Antti Raanta, Carolina
Rationale: Raanta is having a stellar season — he was 19-3-3, with a 2.23 goals-against average and .910 save percentage during the regular season — and, while he undoubtedly benefits from the Hurricanes’ commitment to good team defense, Raanta has done good work with a number of teams throughout his career.

He will be 34 in a week, so envisioning him as the Penguins’ goalie of the future would be a bit of a stretch, but Raanta could be a nice short-term solution if they believe a prospect such as Joel Blomqvist will be NHL-ready in a couple of seasons. Or that Raanta could buy them the time needed to acquire a capable, but younger, goalie from another organization.

Dmitry Kulikov

Role: Left-side defenseman, No. 3 pairing
2022-23 Salary-cap hit: $1.125 million

Replacement: Nick Holden, Ottawa
Rationale: Kulikov was a nice addition for defensive depth at the deadline, although carrying such a veteran as insurance for the entire season might be a luxury the Pittsburgh Penguins’ salary-cap situation will not permit.

Holden doesn’t play as big as he is (6 foot 4, 214 pounds), but skates and moves the puck pretty well, which are obvious plusses in Mike Sullivan’s preferred style of play. However, he’ll be 36 Oct. 20, so any team signing him will want to monitor his workload closely.

Jason Zucker

Role: Second-line left winger
2022-23 Salary-cap hit: $5.5 million

Replacement: Tyler Bertuzzi, Boston
Rationale: Bertuzzi not only can score at the level needed to be effective on the second line — he had five goals and five assists in seven playoff games with the Bruins — but competes with the grit and edge Zucker provides (and that the Penguins desperately need).

He also has the size (6 foot 1, 200 pounds) and touch needed to be an effective net-front presence on the power play, something else the Penguins could use.

Boston presumably would like to re-sign Bertuzzi, whose expiring deal carries a $4.75 million cap hit, but is facing severe cap issues, and might not be able to fit him in, since Bertuzzi figures to attract a lot of interest — and money — on the open market.