Apparently, the New York Islanders didn’t scoop up everyone on their wishlist from last season. As the wave of free-agent contracts and contract extensions Islanders GM Lou Lamoriello has been hiding in his top drawer was released, there was one name absent from the Islanders 2020-21 Eastern Conference run, and the Pittsburgh Penguins could surely take a look.
After the Islanders announced everyone from Kyle Palmieri to Zach Parise, The man left behind was Travis Zajac, the 36-year-old center who had a solid year with New Jersey before struggling at the bottom end of the Islanders lineup.
Zajac is a right-handed center known for his defensive abilities and typically wins more than 50% of his faceoffs. Hello, Pittsburgh Penguins!
The Penguins could use a spare part who can play center or wing at the bottom of the lineup—currently, Evan Rodrigues and Danton Heinen slot of the third and fourth-line RWs. Surely, the Penguins could use a little more competition in that spot.
So, Zajac vaults to the top of our watch list.
According to PuckPedia.com, Penguins have about $1.5 million in salary-cap space when you count one forward being sent to the WBS Penguins and a second player being demoted to make room for a new signing.
Pittsburgh Penguins UFA Potentials and Bargains:
1. Travis Zajac, 36, C/RW
See above for all of the reasons this would fit the Penguins. Also, until Evgeni Malkin is back in the lineup, the Penguins need a fourth-line center. This would be the perfect fit, provided Zajac arrives at the right price.
2. Erik Gudbranson, 29, RHD
Have we beaten the gong enough on this one? We see other local outlets have joined the PHN chorus for the Pittsburgh Penguins to take a look. The tough defenseman had a short resurgence with the Penguins beside LHD Marcus Pettersson and kept Washington Capitals wrecking ball Tom Wilson at bay, too.
Gudbranson was a salary cap casualty when a Jack Johnson, Penguins trade fell through. The Penguins need toughness. They need a right-handed defenseman. The Penguins need Gudbranson. However, sources close to the player said the Penguins had not contacted Gudrbanson, at least as of late August.
In a soon-to-be-published story, Pittsburgh Hockey Now spoke with a former NHL enforcer. One of the lines he uncorked was, “get the biggest, meanest cat in the jungle…there’s no room for half measures.”
Gudbranson is the biggest, meanest cat, and he played well for the Penguins. He doesn’t have to be a fierce fighter–the fact that he can be is more than enough to protect the Penguins.
3. Nikita Gusev, 29, LW
Top-six talent, bottom-six production last season. He scored only 10 points in 31 games for the New Jersey Devils and Florida Panthers. However, the prior season, Gusev lit the lamp 13 times for 44 points in 66 games.
He made just $1 million last season and hasn’t yet signed in the KHL. We’ll take it. The crafty winger with puck skills and head smarts is relatively a Smurf at 5-foot-9 and less than 170 pounds, but he’s got talent.
The Penguins need some goal-scoring on the left side, too. Brock McGinn could be a great addition to Teddy Blueger’s wing, and Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan could keep his energy line rolling with Blueger and Zach Aston-Reese. Putting McGinn beside Blueger, on either side, would open a third-line LW spot beside Jeff Carter.
A playmaking LW beside Carter for peanuts?
4. Alex Chaisson, 30, RW
Count PHN as a bit skeptical on this one. Despite our past advocation for Chaisson has waned. He’s not quick enough to keep up with the Penguins lineup, but they do need toughness. A down-line player who could do some beatin’ and bangin’ would be an addition and a first step towards adding more.
Chaisson scored 16 points, including a solid nine goals in 45 games with Edmonton last season. Five of those nine goals were power-play tallies. Hello, net-front presence?
He’s out there, he can score more points than Heinen is likely to pop, add a dimension to the second power-play unit, and he’s 6-foot-4 and 208 pounds. He made over $2 million last season, but his price tag has probably fallen closer to $1 million.
5. Zdeno Chara, 44, LHD
This was a non-starter for us for most of the offseason until a trusted friend in the hockey business said he loved the idea. Chara doesn’t have to play every game and wouldn’t be responsible for more than third-pairing duty and some net-clearing fun. The 6-foot-9, 250-pound hammer might have one more go left in him, but an 82-game season is probably too much to ask.
A partial schedule is perfect for the Penguins with both Mark Friedman and Chad Ruhwedel behind him. “Big Z” is currently deciding his next move while at home in Slovakia.
Since Matt Cullen retired, the Penguins haven’t had a player old enough to make this writer feel like he’s still a relevant age. Another graybeard would be appreciated.
How about it, Ron Hextall?
Editor’s Note: We listed Chara as right-handed in the first version.