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NHL Free Agency

Day 2 Penguins UFA Potentials; Right-Defensemen, New Names to Watch

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Pittsburgh Penguins, Sam Vatanen (left), Erik Gudbranson (right)

The Pittsburgh Penguins wanted to re-sign Cody Ceci. He fit brilliantly with the Penguins scheme and defensive partner Mike Matheson. Penguins GM Ron Hextall could offer little more than a shrug and acknowledgment the Penguins could no longer afford the right-side defender whom they signed to a “show-me” one-year deal last offseason.

He showed them. They could not afford him, especially with the red hot NHL free-agent market, which surpassed 100 transactions before 5 p.m. on Wednesday.

Ceci signed a four-year deal with the Edmonton Oilers. Sure, the Penguins could have gone the route of the Vegas Golden Knights, who keep spending money over the cap and trading players (with or without calling them?), but that’s not Hextall’s style. He’s a straight-laced GM who doesn’t get into trouble then dig his way out.

It’s hard to believe he sits in the same chair once occupied by Jim Rutherford, eh?

Hextall admitted the Penguins were “very, very busy” on Wednesday morning. That likely means they touched base on a few availables, only to find the sticker prices were going up, not down.

The Penguins are currently short one regular, right-side NHL defenseman, but there are only five, maybe six regular, steady, capable right-side NHL defenders left.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t value or opportunity for the Penguins, who have about $3.6 million left, according to PuckPedia.com.

Top RHDs available for Pittsburgh Penguins

Jani Hakanpaa

It’s a name we’ve not explored before. He checks a few boxes for the Penguins and checks a few opponents, too. He’s got size (6-foot-5, 218 pounds), he delivered 215 hits last season, and did we mention he’s big?

Hakanpaa, 29, will not fit into the Penguins’ activating defense like Ceci. He won’t lead the rush or steady himself at the point of the second power-play unit.

He plays a steady, quiet, but physical game. He’s scored five points (3-2-5) in 62 career NHL games. Nine years ago, he came to North America after the St. Louis Blues selected him in the fourth round of the 2012 NHL Draft. However, he lasted only a few minor league seasons before going back to his native Finland.

He returned in 2019-20 with the Anaheim organization and played 47 AHL games and five NHL games. He broke through last season and played a full season split between Anaheim and Carolina. He also played in 11 playoff games for Carolina.

As a UFA, he adds the truculence. Given the lurch towards large defensemen, Hakanpaa may see a healthy raise over his previous $750,000 salary. However, if the Penguins can get him in that range or slightly higher, it’s probably a worthwhile conversation.

Teams can recoup salary under $1.05 million by hiding it in the AHL when things don’t work out. Hakanpaa is also Finnish, which the Penguins seem to like, too.

UPDATE: Hakanpaa signed a one-year, $1.5 million deal with the Dallas Stars.

Erik Gudbranson

Yep, we’re still on the Gudbranson bandwagon. The hulking defender was good for the Penguins at the end of 2018-19 before salary cap issues forced Rutherford to deal him to the Anaheim Ducks for minor league depth.

He’s a net-clearing, tough defenseman who showed some surprising puck skills in his time with the Penguins when they freed him up. His optimism at the fresh start was contagious, and he performed well.

He was also crushed when he realized he was part of a logjam created on the third pairing with (trigger warning) Jack Johnson and surprise rookie John Marino.

We’ve tooted his horn before, including on Wednesday. His contract with a $4 million AAV has expired, and he’ll have to take a Sgt. Hulka haircut (Stripes reference) on his next deal. He should fall into the Pittsburgh Penguins price range.

Michael Stone

Stone is a bit of a Ceci-style reclamation. He’s got some talent but has been a third-pairing guy for most of his career. In his one shining moment, he popped 36 points in 2015-16 for the Arizona Coyotes.

The following season, they traded the now-31-year-old defenseman to Calgary, where he’s been a 16-minute defenseman. He kicks in a few points, literally, and dishes a hit or two per game.

Stone doesn’t lack size. He’s 6-foot-3, 210 pounds, and can be physical. He can also blast away from the point and scored four points (2-2-4) in 21 games last season.

If it means anything, he had a 54% Corsi with Calgary.

Sami Vatanen

We’re not sold on this option. The value and production could go in different directions. Of course, the same was said of Ceci, who proved everyone (but PHN, which praised the signing, *ahem) wrong.

Hextall should be familiar with Vatanen from his years in New Jersey and the Metro Division.

If the Pittsburgh Penguins want an offensive defenseman, Vatanen may be the guy to add a little juice beside Marcus Petterson. The downside is he’s a bit small (5-foot-10, 185 pounds) and isn’t going to play physical hockey.

Vatanen, 30, made $2 million last season and scored six points (2-4-6) in 30 games for the New Jersey Devils but was scoreless in nine games for the Dallas Stars.

Given the market, we feel his price will inch above $2 million, which would put too much pressure on the Penguins’ salary cap structure compared to the production.

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Pittsburgh Hockey Now Editor-in-Chief, formerly 93.7 The Fan, Sportsnet Hockey Tonight, NHL Home Ice. Catch Dan tweeting @theDanKingerski and the official @pghhockeynow account.

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Big B
Big B
1 month ago

The Pens have abot 4.7 because if they sign a RHD they will demote Friedman or Ruhwedel and still carry 7 D-Men.They just signed Michael Chaput to a two deal, good depth.

Big B
Big B
1 month ago
Reply to  Big B

Jani Hakanpaa just signed in Dallas 3 years at 1.5.

bbh
bbh
1 month ago

Hakanpaa is the guy. 3 of his 4 points came in the 15 games he played with the uptempo canes and he hits everything that moves without going out of position to do so. Gudbranson adds ‘punch back’, but I think Jani fits the Sully system better. Scouts have referred to him as a cerebral player. How many 6’5” thumpers can you say that about? Also had a couple +25 minute games in the playoffs last year, so he can eat minutes if need be, but usually settled in around 16 a night for the canes. This is guy i… Read more »

Ed Andrews
Ed Andrews
1 month ago
Reply to  bbh

What about Ben Bishop as Backup G if he can stay healthy

Katz
Katz
1 month ago
Reply to  Ed Andrews

Bishop = LTIR
If there ever was a roster built to barely make the playoffs , or totally not qualify, it is this roster. Vanilla, sweet cream, and fillers . If this roster was a consumer product it would be Hunts Ketchup. You just can’t use it …only skip it and eat your French Fries naked.

Robert Shoemaker
Robert Shoemaker
1 month ago
Reply to  Katz

Well, its better than a rebuilding roster. It could be worse, they could be Buffalo! Enjoy watching this team while they are still relevant. Winning the toughest division, with a condensed schedule, and all of the injuries last season was no small feat. They kept pretty much the entire roster from last season in tact and only subtracted mccann and tanev. They will still be a tough team to play against and fun to watch. Asking a team to win the cup every season is unrealistic.

Robert Shoemaker
Robert Shoemaker
1 month ago

Edit, they also lost Ceci and Gaudreau. I stand by my comments though

Dan
Dan
1 month ago

Gudbrandson is the man. He neutralizes Wilson and others.

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