CRANBERRY — Kyle Dubas isn’t ruling out re-signing the Pittsburgh Penguins’ three most prominent free agents.
Then again, he isn’t committing to bringing back Jason Zucker, Tristan Jarry and Brian Dumoulin, either.
Or any of them, for that matter.
“We’ve had varying degrees of conversation with (those three),” Dubas said Friday. “I’ve never viewed it as being ‘optimistic’ or ‘pessimistic’ (about reaching contract agreements). I think it’s trying to figure out what the market’s going to be for them and then whether our view of it aligns with the players and their agents. We’re still working through that process.”
He said he expects to have “deeper conversations” with the players’ agents next week, when the hockey world will converge on Nashville for the NHL Draft, and will “probably have a decision about whether it’s going to work or not here, on all fronts, by the time we get to next Wednesday (or) Thursday. … The dance is ongoing right now with all of them.”
Zucker, Jarry and Dumoulin will be unrestricted if they don’t reach contract agreements with the Penguins by July 1.
Dumoulin has been Kris Letang’s regular defense partner in recent years, losing Zucker would leave a hole on the Penguins’ second line and Jarry’s departure would mean the Penguins have to find a new No. 1 goaltender.
Dubas acknowledged that there is not an internal candidate to replace Jarry.
“In the past here, whether it’s been Tristan or Matt Murray or whoever … go back to Marc-Andre Fleury, there have always been young guys sort of there,” he said. “We don’t have that yet. We have young goaltenders that we like, but nobody that’s pushing (for an NHL job). So there’s either going to have to be a solution with Tristan or we’re going to have to, through trade or free agency, address that.
“On defense, Brian Dumoulin has been a staple here for a long time and a part of championship clubs. … Can P.O Joseph, can Ty Smith, can others jump into that range? We’re evaluating that.”
Dubas, the Pittsburgh Penguins’ president of hockey operations and interim general manager, said he has been speaking with representatives of all of the Penguins’ free-agents-to-be, although the only deal he has struck so far has been with forward Valtteri Puustinen.
“We’re having conversations with all of our people, to varying depths, just to get an understanding for where we’re at,” he said. “I think it would be remiss on my end not to have those types of conversations.”
He noted that the deadline for extending qualifying offers to the Penguins’ restricted agents, a group headlined by bottom-six forwards Drew O’Connor and Ryan Poehling, is 5 p.m. on June 30.
Giving a player a qualifying offer preserves a team’s right to match any offer he gets from another club or to receive compensation if it declines to match.
The decisions on O’Connor and Poehling aside, Dubas indicated the Penguins will focus on upgrading their bottom two lines in free agency.
“Last year, the group here got great performances out of its core players and still missed (the playoffs),” he said. “So we need to have players at the bottom of the lineup, on the third and fourth lines, who can add certain utilities.
“I don’t think they’re going to be the big, splashy-type of UFAs, if that’s where we go. They’ll probably be more subtle bets, and we’ll need to hit on them in order to have success.”
How much Dubas will be able to invest in free agents will hinge, in large part, on which of his own players the Pittsburgh Penguins retain. At the moment, they are believed to have a bit more than $20 million with which to work.
“We have cap space,” Dubas said. “Obviously, we have some big needs that we need to fill using that.”
While that cap space could shrink considerably if Dubas re-signs some of his own players, he noted that other clubs might be forced to part with worthwhile players because of salary-cap stresses.
“That (cap space currently available) also puts us in position to acquire players from other teams that are looking to shed salaries to become cap-compliant, outright,” he said. “Or different players (of their own) they want to re-sign.”