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Dubas: Major Makeover for Penguins Likely Coming This Summer



Kyle Dubas

CRANBERRY — It’s not that the Pittsburgh Penguins didn’t have assets to move as the NHL trade deadline approached.

After all, they entered final day leading up to the deadline Friday with no fewer than five players with expiring contracts on their major-league roster. And that’s not counting guys with time left on their deals who would appeal to clubs bolstering their rosters for a playoff run.

But when the deadline passed, Kyle Dubas, the Pittsburgh Penguins’ president of hockey operations and GM, had sent only four players to new teams. And just two of those, left winger Jake Guentzel and third-pairing defenseman Chad Ruhwedel, had been on the NHL payroll.

The Penguins also parted with defenseman Ty Smith and goalie Magnus Hellberg, both of whom were with their farm team in Wilkes-Barre.

What could have been — and was widely expected to be — the first step in a serious makeover of the Penguins turned out, with the exception of trading Guentzel to Carolina, to be little more than tinkering around the edges of the corporate depth chart.

Which Dubas seemed to acknowledge during a meeting with reporters after the deadline passed.

“The players (whose contracts) were expiring, I thought those would be the ones most (likely) to go,” he said. “The ones with (time remaining on deals), especially in the flatter-cap market, are a little tougher. And then the secondary part is the decision-making of, ‘What’s the value today, at the trade deadline, versus the summer, with salary cap going up, versus next year at the trade deadline, if (you have) players with term that other players are interested in?’ ”

In addition to Guentzel and Ruhwedel, forwards Jeff Carter and Jansen Harkins and goalie Alex Nedeljkovic will be eligible for unrestricted free agency this summer. Carter’s contract includes a no-movement clause, so he could have vetoed any deal, but there was expected to be interest in Nedeljkovic, who has had a solid season as Tristan Jarry’s backup.

Third-line center Lars Eller, who is believed to have piqued the interest of at least a few contenders, headlined the group of expected trade targets with time remaining on a contract.

While the Pittsburgh Penguins’ roster has remained largely intact — Guentzel and Ruhwedel are gone, replaced by Michael Bunting and, most likely, John Ludvig — Dubas suggested that it could undergo a major transformation during the coming offseason.

“I think we need to make a lot of improvement to the group,” he said. “Obviously, we’re not where we aspire to be. We’ve got the salary-cap flexibility to do it. … We’re going to going into the summer now with about $12 million in cap space to improve on certain spots. … We’ve got more assets now to get involved in conversations that we couldn’t get ourselves involved with (previously), when it comes to trades for younger players. That was our goal here, exiting the deadline.”

The Penguins aren’t counting on immediate help from any of the three prospects they acquired in the Guentzel trade, although Dubas gave predictably upbeat evaluations about the potential of each. Here’s what he had to say about them:

Vasily Ponomarev

“He’s been right on the cusp. We’ll assign him to Wilkes at the start, just to get him acclimated into our system, but I would expect that at some point here, down the stretch, he’ll get a good run with us, and then we expect him to challenge (for an NHL job in the fall). I don’t think anything’s guaranteed, but we expect him to challenge and be on the roster going into next year.”

Cruz Lucius

“He’s gotten better and better as the year’s gone on. He’s had a great impact in a tough conference, the Big 10. … We’ll have a conversation with him and his people at the end of the year, but I suspect he will (for his junior season), then turn pro in subsequent seasons.”

Ville Koivunen

“He’s had an excellent year. He’s a guy who, going back to the 2021 draft, when I was in Toronto, we had highly touted in our (scouting) process. … He’s just gotten better and better as the year’s gone on. He makes such a high impact — highly competitive and highly skilled, which seems to be the mix that fits here best. He’s signed (to an NHL deal). He’s loaned over there. Once their season ends, if he’s not going to be in their national team mix — which I suspect he will be for Finland — then we’ll bring him to Wilkes-Barre and get him acclimated.”