The Pittsburgh Penguins draft and free agency haul have been substantial. Not in recent memory or ever have the Penguins had three first-round picks on the ice together at development camp. Penguins’ president of hockey operations and interim GM Kyle Dubas is nearing double-digit free agent signees who could play in the NHL this season, yet one issue remains unaddressed.
The Penguins’ bottom six has a significantly better chance of achieving competence in 2023-24 than last season. Still, there remains a lack of goal-scoring ability unless the Penguins are banking on Drew O’Connor (a yet unsigned RFA) to triple his output and Mikael Granlund to 20x his output.
Newly signed center Lars Eller is a shutdown center who should help coach Mike Sullivan address the Penguins’ horrific tendency to squander leads large and small, early and late.
However, for all of the adding and subtracting over the past three weeks, the Penguins’ bottom six remains offensively light.
Drew O’Connor had five goals in 46 games. Granlund had one goal in 21 games with the Penguins. Eller had 10 goals and 23 points in 84 games split between Washington and Colorado.
Noel Acciari is the high scorer with 14 goals in 77 games. The oft-criticized Jeff Cater had 13 goals. Matt Nieto had 12 goals and 12 assists in 81 games. Alex Nylander had one goal in nine games.
Neither Vinnie Hinostroza nor Andreas Johnsson contributed much at the NHL level last season.
To be clear, the increased speed and defensive responsibility of the Penguins’ bottom six will create an improved team. However, there will also be power outages and injuries in the top six, shifting some offensive burden to the middle and bottom lines.
From there, Dubas has more work to do.
The Penguins are currently more than $500,000 over the salary cap when factoring in only two goalies on the NHL roster, though O’Connor’s arbitration hearing is pending. The Penguins could be about $1.5 million over the cap soon.
Yet Dubas shrugged off salary cap worries on July 1 with the confidence that can only come from a person with a plan. Perhaps the next issue Dubas should tackle is the quiet offense within the bottom lines, and we’ll dish the benefit of the doubt that Dubas knows where the money will come from.
5 Bargain Free Agents
1. Zach Parise
At 38 years old, he won’t command a long-term deal or one that exceeds $1 million. Last season, he scored 21 goals on a $750,000 contract with the New York Islanders. He’s still got some wheels and hands. In the right situation, he could again post solid goal totals.
Now that the Islanders lost out on the Alex DeBrincat plan, maybe they will find space for Parise again, but they also barely squeaked into the playoffs and badly need a refresh. A third-line scorer could see significant power play time with the Penguins, and the points boost it creates.
2. Eric Staal
Another 38-year-old that still has some gas in the tank for one more season. Staal had 29 points, including 14 goals, with the Florida Panthers last season despite being cast in a fourth-line role. He could neatly fill the Penguins’ fourth-line center role, allowing Sullivan to mix and match the wingers that fit Eller and Staal best.
Staal has become a hard-nosed pivot, excelling in the dirty areas of the rink and able to kill penalties. He made only $750,000 last season. If he’s willing to brave snow again, he could be a solid addition.
3. Denis Malgin
The least option on the list. Malgin is an inconsistent small forward who was non-tendered by the Colorado Avalanche. He’s only 26 years old and is looking for his fourth team.
Malgin does have ties to Dubas, who acquired him from the Florida Panthers. Dubas signed him to RFA deals in the summers of 2021 and 2022 before trading him to Colorado near the 2023 NHL trade deadline.
He popped 13 goals last season, and perhaps he could be another “tweener” like Hinostroza and Johnsson, who might make the NHL club or add some pop to the WBS Penguins.
4. Tomas Tatar
How much of a bargain will Tatar become? He scored 48 points, including 20 goals last season. His ability to score isn’t in doubt, but the other facets of his game are.
Inconsistency remains the bugaboo, yet he has speed and hands.
His two-year, $9 million contract with the New Jersey Devils set a solid market base. Still, it’s July 10, and he remains the second-highest scorer on the market (excluding Patrick Kane and his potential injury issues) behind Vladimir Tarasenko. Perhaps he, too, will accept a short-term tender with a more affordable AAV in the hopes of racking up big totals and cashing in next summer when the salary cap spikes.
If Dubas does have a plan, perhaps he can squeeze some offense into the bottom six. Tatar would be the big get if Dubas needs to tap the free-agent market for that offense.