The retooling, rebuilding, or refortification of the Pittsburgh Penguins middle six has begun or will begin in July. The uncertainty stems from the excessive number of unsettled spots and unsigned players.
Evgeni Malkin? Rickard Rakell?
Will Jason Zucker be healthy enough to play next season or be able to correct this seemingly ongoing (chronic?) injury? After an offseason of doctor’s work, can he return to the player he was?
Kasperi Kapanen and Danton Heinen are RFAs with less than guaranteed chances to return to the Penguins. That leaves Jeff Carter as the only standing member of the Penguins’ middle six.
If Malkin returns, the Penguins will need a RW for him. Or for Sidney Crosby, if recently re-signed, Bryan Rust plays with Malkin.
And no, Crosby does not get to pick his linemates. Nor does head coach Mike Sullivan punish Malkin by giving Crosby all the good wingers, and no, Sullivan doesn’t keep giving Malkin the good wingers to prop him up.
I knew those ideas would be in the comments section, so best to address them now.
The RW market has some talent, but there is a steep drop–we’re talking Evil Kneivel-like jump–after the top handful of UFA right-wingers.
Teams have another six weeks to re-sign their players, and one of the top RWs is still playing. Based on the Penguins’ salary cap structure, we’re currently guestimating about $4 million to fill the second-line RW spot. That puts the Penguins on the low end of the spectrum, but hockey players aren’t dumb.
Could a top-shelf RW take a short deal with the Penguins to pad their numbers if the market isn’t what they want? There’s one possibility there.
Rickard Rakell upped his value significantly with his time in Pittsburgh, too.
Top 4 RW UFAs, Who Could Fit the Pittsburgh Penguins?
5. Phil Kessel.
No. Just kidding. Stop it!
4. Valeri Nichushkin, COL, $2.5 million AAV
Great skater. Good hands. Hugely inconsistent career. He scored just 10 goals in 52 games last season and 13 in 65 games with the Dallas Stars the year before that. He exploded for 25 goals this season with the juggernaut Avalanche top-six. Perhaps his spotty past will keep the price down (it should), and if Joe Sakic doesn’t re-up the Russian winger, perhaps he could be a good get in the $3.5-$4 million range.
3. Nino Niederreiter, CAR, $5.5 million AAV
The zippy Carolina winger is 29-years-old and routinely fills the net against the Penguins. He is a tad overpaid but is a solid middle-six winger with modestly good hands. He knows how to score near the net and between the dots. He’s a good skater and 20-goal seasons are not uncommon. He scored 24 this year.
At $5.5 million, no chance, no way. Niederreiter is not at that level, nor is he much of a special teams player. The flip side is he scored 18 goals at 5v5 this season.
In the $4 million range, he’s an easy grab.
2. Ilya Mikheyev, TOR, $1.65 million
Another Russian? In the years we’ve been doing this, we usually have to seek out Russians to pair with Evgeni Malkin. Mikheyev has been way up, way down, and way up again.
He’s 6-foot-3 but only 195 pounds. He’s not going to add the physical jam to the Penguins lineup, but he’s got silky hands. The 27-year-old came to the NHL from the KHL three seasons ago. He posted 23 points in 39 games in his rookie year but only 17 in 54 games during his second season.
Unless Toronto GM Kyle Dubas can shed significant salary before the free-agent frenzy, Mikheyev will probably become a UFA. This season, he scored 21 goals, including four shorties–more than the Penguins team combined.
He shoots a lot. The winger ripped 147 shots in 53 games.
So, he can score. He can kill penalties. But he’s also disappeared for long stretches. Buyer beware. His $1.64 million AAV expires this summer, and he could be the bargain option in the $3 million or less category.
He was hurt much of last season as he suffered knee issues. In 56 games, he scored 16 goals and 22 assists. The Vegas Golden Knights probably make the playoffs if he were in the lineup down the stretch.
VGK has jettisoned most of the original misfits. Will they pony up to keep Smith? He is a solid scoring option when healthy and kills penalties. In fact, Smith is a shorthanded weapon.
He probably goes for more than $5 million. The player would fit well with the Penguins. The contract will not. However, perhaps the Penguins can get a Mike Hoffman sweetheart deal.
1. Rickard Rakell
After the Pittsburgh Penguins acquired Rakell, 29, from the Anaheim Ducks for Dominik Simon, Zach Aston-Reese, and a second-round pick, Rakell flourished. He showed hockey sense, hands, and an ability to create offense for Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and finish the play.
It looks like a match made in heaven, but other GMs carrying their owner’s wallets may get a say. Rakell may have been lost in the shuffle while playing in Anaheim. New York Rangers defenseman Ryan Lindgren’s flagrant elbow removed Rakell from most of the Penguins Round One series against New York, but the fit is undeniable.
Rakell slumped with the rest of the Anaheim Ducks. As talent dissipated, so too did his numbers. This season, he had only 28 points in 51 games with Anaheim. He had 28 in 52 the season before.
He showed his best with the Penguins.
My colleague Dave Molinari did a Rickard Rakell breakdown and salary possibilities. I like him at $4.0-$4.5 million with term, but a rival GM could come calling with money in the 5s and term.