It’s a long way off, but what began as an easy exercise to determine which Pittsburgh Penguins might be available in the 2021 Expansion Draft quickly became a quagmire of questions and ponderance. There are huge questions looming over the Penguins beyond this season and most involve their salary cap and long term contracts. Internal sources have shared with PHN for a year, and did so again recently, their great fear over Matt Murray’s next contract which comes due next summer. The Penguins will need to clear significant space for that.
And then will come the expansion draft the following summer.
Even though the draft is two years away, the Penguins bevy of long term contracts means unless the players are traded, the Penguins will have some interesting decisions. And yes, we fully acknowledge the academic nature of this exercise, but it does pass the time in August. So, don’t take anything as gospel just yet.
Seattle does not have a name but the new NHL organization has tapped Ron Francis as its general manager. In about 10 months, teams around the NHL will begin to agonize, plot and plan to keep the players they want and steer Seattle to the players they can afford to lose. Perhaps the NHL and the Penguins learned their lesson after they cumulatively allowed the Vegas Golden Knights and GM George McPhee to pick their pockets for additional draft picks and talented players in 2017.
Or maybe not.
The flip side of Penguins GM Jim Rutherford’s push to become deep and save cap space is they currently have a bevy of replaceable players. The top-heavy, talent-laden team which hoisted Stanley Cups has been replaced by a blue-collar crew with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. When examining which Penguins might be protected for the 2021 Expansion Draft, it became a game of which could be selected, instead.
The Penguins don’t have many irreplaceable players but they have a handful of middle-class salaries with middle-class production. Patric Hornqvist failed to score 20 goals for the first time in his career, last season. He makes $5 million and will have two years remaining on his deal in 2021. Will Bryan Rust and his $3.5 million AAV prove too expensive to keep? Would the Penguins sacrifice newly signed Brandon Tanev and his long contract?
Jack Johnson will have two years left on his deal, too. The number of heart attacks he will cause Penguins bloggers between now and then should keep UPMC in business but if Johnson hasn’t been traded by then–could the Penguins forfeit a significant asset to move him?
Francis built a solid, young, fast core in Carolina but it was also unspectacular and lacked offense. As Vegas proved in their 2017 expansion, there are players waiting for the opportunity and breakout (and a goaltender who can be the face of the franchise, too). Francis never added a front line scorer but accumulated talent and depth.
Teams may protect seven skaters, three defensemen and one goalie, or they may protect eight skaters and one goalie.
Using our cloudy crystal ball for the Penguins, the latter is probably the way to go. Beyond Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin, the Penguins defense is not comprised of sought after talent. It is important to note, another full season can change thinking. What if Marcus Pettersson has a breakout year? If the Penguins re-sign Justin Schultz, he too would need to be protected.
Schultz is the most likely candidate to push the Penguins to protect only seven forwards in order to keep three defensemen. Schultz will be a free agent next summer and defensemen who can score 40 points and not abandon their own zone generally receive big paychecks.
However, the Penguins have a lot of players who could swing the discussion in either direction pending their performance in 2019-2020.
The Penguins could also work backward and protect their lower-paid players. Currently, the list includes such players as Teddy Blueger ($750,000) or Aston-Reese ($1 million). Extending the hypothetical further, the Penguins could use the 2021 Expansion Draft as a fulcrum to further a rebuild and shed cap space.
Eight Skaters + 1 Goalie
Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jake Guentzel, Jared McCann, Hornqvist, would be the five forwards on the protected list. We also extrapolate Aston-Reese, too. Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin would comprise the necessary defensemen to protect.
That list would leave Jack Johnson, Pettersson, Tanev, and Rust unprotected. The Penguins could bet on Seattle passing on players like Rust and Tanev because of their contracts.
Could the Penguins swing another deal with an expansion team, so Seattle selects a player such as Johnson? Given Francis’ amassed defensemen in Carolina which were talented and good skaters, getting Seattle to select Johnson seems like an expensive ask, and unlikely.
Bjugstad is another bubble player. His contract expires in 2021 and could the Penguins replace him with a less salaried player, or re-sign him? Factoring the Penguins spent two seasons searching for a competent third-line center, the answer is not as easy as you think. Should he be re-upped, he too would need to be protected.
Seven Skaters, Three Defensemen, + 1 Goalie
If the Penguins re-sign Schultz to a deal, he, Letang and Dumoulin are the protected three.
The four guaranteed skaters are Crosby, Malkin, Guentzel and most likely McCann. Then money becomes the biggest factor. Hornqvist, Bjugstad, Rust, and Tanev are on the chopping block.
Unlike 2017, the Penguins don’t have an attractive star player who is superfluous. Much will change between now and June 2021, including the roster. But for now, the Penguins have depth, replaceable parts, and some awkward salaries. Ron Francis will study McPhee’s playbook and if Rutherford hopes to clear salary at the draft, it will cost the Penguins an asset.
*Editors note: We published an earlier version of this column Thursday which incorrectly listed the expansion draft in 2020. We apologize for the error.