Figuring out whether to re-sign Kasperi Kapanen is one of the most intriguing issues facing the Pittsburgh Penguins this summer.
Do they let Kapanen, who is a restricted free agent with arbitration rights, walk because he’s had two disappointing seasons since being reacquired from Toronto?
Or do Ron Hextall and his staff still believe Kapanen can be a productive top-six forward, worth at least the gamble of a short-term contract?
And if management does decide to bring him back, what roles will he fill?
Will he get another chance at right wing on the second line? Might he provide a right-shot presence on the No. 1 power play, especially if Kris Letang moves on?
And could Kapanen be given an opportunity to kill penalties?
He was on the ice for a total — not an average — of eight seconds in 79 regular-season games while the Penguins were shorthanded in 2021-22. It’s hard to say whether Mike Sullivan and his staff simply didn’t think Kapanen could handle that duty effectively, or simply did not want to reward him with extra ice time when he was having such a miserable overall season.
However, Kapanen does have penalty-killing on his resume.
He averaged one minute, 39 seconds of shorthanded work with Toronto in 2019-20 and 1:37 the season before that.
With Zach Aston-Reese gone and no guarantee that Brian Boyle will be brought back, there likely will be an opening or two on that unit. Regardless, it might well benefit from an infusion of fresh personnel.
The Penguins’ penalty-killing was among the best in the league for much of the past season, but slipped significantly in the latter stages because of two events involving fixtures on the shorthanded unit: Teddy Blueger’s jaw being broken and Aston-Reese being sent to Anaheim in the Rickard Rakell deal.
The Penguins entered their game against Winnipeg Jan. 23 as the NHL’s top-ranked team in home (90.9 percent), away (89.3) and overall (90.0) penalty-killing efficiency.
That afternoon, Blueger, who finished the season averaging 2:15 of penalty-killing work per game, had his jaw broken on a hit by Jets defenseman Brendan Dillon.
By the time Blueger rejoined the lineup on March 8, the penalty-kill had slipped to third overall and 11th at home. And after Aston-Reese departed on March 21, the group continued to slide, finally settling in seventh overall (82.3), sixth at home (84.8) and ninth on the road (80.2).
The playoffs did not provide a reset, as the New York Rangers’ power play went 6-for-19. The Penguins’ shorthanded success rate of 68.4 percent is the third-worst among the 16 clubs that qualified for postseason play.
Bryan Rust, who has penalty-killing in his background, became a regular on that unit after openings were created by Blueger’s injury and Aston-Reese’s departure, but it’s far from certain that Sullivan will want to routinely deploy a top-line winger in a role where lost-time injuries born of blocking shots are fairly common.
How the Pittsburgh Penguins will fill out their coterie of penalty-killers — Blueger and Brock McGinn presumably will retain their spots — remains to be seen, and likely will be determined by how other areas of their roster come together.
If, for example, they don’t retain Evgeni Malkin, perhaps they’d be willing to invest a significant salary in someone who not only can kill penalties, but who could be a capable No. 2 center.
Vincent Trocheck, the Upper St. Clair native and unrestricted free agent who has been productive for both Florida and Carolina, presumably would be very high on the list of those candidates.
Then again, Hextall might decide to fill those jobs from inside the organization, with someone like Evan Rodrigues, Kapanen (if he’s re-signed) or Kasper Bjorkqvist.
At this point, their most likely course figures to be shopping for a Boyle-type veteran (perhaps Boyle himself) or two with a history of solid shorthanded play and who is able to take a regular shift on the fourth line.
Oh, and who would earn a relatively modest salary.
Here are six guys who fit that description and are scheduled to be unrestricted free agents July 13, with their 2021-22 club and salary-cap hit in parentheses:
*** Tyler Bozak (St. Louis, $750,000, but worth up to $2 million with bonuses) — His skating and intangibles still are good, but while he’s capable of making the occasional timely offensive contribution — witness his overtime game-winning goal in Game 5 against Colorado during the second round of the playoffs — Bozak no longer is a reliable point-producer. No surprise, since he’s 36.
*** Trevor Lewis (Calgary, $800,000)– Lewis, 35, recognizes — and plays within — his offensive limitations, which adds to his value. He skates well and works hard, and can be used at center or on either wing.
*** Cedric Paquette (Montreal, $950,000) — Inconsistency has been an issue throughout his career, which is why he’s gone through stretches as a healthy scratch and actually was put on waivers in March. Nonetheless, he’s a capable penalty-killer, averaging 1:47 while the Canadiens were down a man during the past season, and has a physical element in his game.
*** Brad Richardson (Vancouver, $800,000) — He’s 37, but still responsible defensively and able to kill penalties. Like most of the guys on this list, he can play multiple positions and does not make frequent appearances on the scoresheet.
*** Kevin Rooney (New York Rangers, $750,000) — He’s been one of New York’s go-to penalty-killers — he averaged 2:07 during the regular season and is at 1:40 in the playoffs — and Rooney’s effectiveness might make the Rangers reluctant to part with him. Then again, salary-cap pressures might give them no choice.
*** Nate Thompson (Philadelphia, $800,000) — Penalty-killing is one of his fortes; Thompson averaged 2:10 of shorthanded work in 2021-22, which placed 18th among all NHL forwards. He traditionally performs well against the Penguins and plays a tenacious, relentless game, which might be part of the reason he’s been injury-prone throughout his career.