In the fallout from another Pittsburgh Penguins postseason loss, this one probably more painful because it was undeserved but final nonetheless, the prime free agents have taken center stage. Shakespearean actors at the Globe Theater. Will the offseasons of Kris Letang and Evgeni Malkin’s drama become a comedy to be laughed about later, a redemption, or a tragedy?
Bryan Rust and the Penguins met in the middle, and the gritty winger will stick around for up to six years but took a little less annual salary for the term.
Now comes Letang.
Dave Molinari looked at the paltry list of UFAs who may or may not be available this summer. It’s no bumper crop. If you’re buying futures, sell now. Read: The Penguins’ free-agent options
Bottom line, everyone has it backward regarding replacing Letang. The UFA market stinks. The objective should not be to replace Letang but to replace almost everyone else.
Kris Letang Contract
On breakup day, Letang reiterated a promise that he and Hextall made to each other to keep anything and everything out of the media. PHN was told the same from internal sources at multiple points in the season. “Don’t bother asking” was the basic message.
Sportsnet & Elliotte Friedman recently reported the Penguins and Letang were not only not on the same page but not in the same book. That’s as much as we reliably know.
If the Penguins are looking at the tiny crop of available RHDs and their options to round off their blue line if Letang departs, they’re going in the very wrong direction.
Aside from sketchy goaltending and special teams that did more harm than good, the Penguins still had the series in their grasp. They failed to put away the New York Rangers in part because of their defensemen.
No, the defensemen didn’t make ghastly mistakes (you can split hairs and ponder Marcus Pettersson not picking up his helmet in Game 7. I generally absolve him–stay with me, here).
Penguins Punchless Defense
The Pittsburgh Penguins defensemen eluded the New York forecheck, which crushed them in the regular season. The Penguins defensemen zipped through the neutral zone, especially Mike Matheson and a few times Mark Friedman. And the Penguins defensemen jumped into the play in the offensive zone to create scoring chances.
They did everything right.
Except they couldn’t score even if a Mite goalie distracted by a stack of comics was in the cage.
The Penguins defensemen, excluding Matheson and Letang, could have amassed 100 chances. The goals were not going to follow. Chad Ruhwedel, John Marino, Friedman, and Pettersson combined for a meager eight goals in the 82-game regular season.
Add Brian Dumoulin’s three tallies, and five of the Penguins’ seven regular defensemen accounted for fewer goals (11) than Brock McGinn (12).
With the Penguins’ style and activating defense, that’s not even close to good enough.
In the Round One series, the five defensemen had a respectable 21 scoring chances, including five high-danger whacks at Igor Shesterkin. Despite Shesterkin’s emerging humanity and crumbling invincibility, those five Penguins defensemen scored… one goal.
Not surprisingly, the plucky Mark Friedman netted the goal. Friedman seems to be both the Penguins’ wild-card and wild-child. And we’re here for it.
So, why the worry about replacing Kris Letang?
The Penguins and GM Ron Hextall should face the music and sign Letang. Swallow hard, ask God’s forgiveness, light a cigarette, then back up the Brinks armored truck. If they don’t want to sign him for five years, pony up most of the cash over three and hope he compromises.
Call it “the reverse Rust.”
Perhaps Letang will compromise if the Penguins at least open the same book.
Mike Matheson has proved to be an excellent second-pair guy who can play first-pair minutes with a good partner. Matheson had 11 goals and 30 points this season. As importantly, he provided a speed boost and puck carrying ability to the blue line.
With a sub $5 million contract, he’s definitely a keeper.
For $1 million, Mark Friedman is also a definite keeper.
They need defensemen capable of finishing a play when the puck is on their stick, at least a few times per season.
The Pittsburgh Penguins have a championship piece with Kris Letang. It’s the crop of others that are not carrying enough weight. Pettersson and Marino have weighty contracts. Both played solidly enough this season that a starving team could conceivably take advantage if they become available, provided the acquiring team doesn’t expect offense.
The Penguins appear headed for a retool from the top down, but they should purge their blue line, recoup the money for free agents, and retool from the bottom up.
Otherwise, the fifth act of the Shakespearean play could be watching the Penguins’ blue line falter and the team with it.