NHL teams will submit their final answers Saturday afternoon under lock and key or a hermetically sealed mayonnaise jar on Funk and Wagnall’s porch. Who will Pittsburgh Penguins GM Ron Hextall protect in the expansion draft as the NHL finally unleashes the Kraken? The names haven’t changed, but the situation has. Several payers across the league are unexpectedly available, new free agents are on the market, and Seattle GM Ron Francis definitely has a type.
There has been tons of speculation. I find the different perspectives both entertaining and enlightening. It’s been curious to see how different colleagues have sized up this situation which contains variables beyond the known.
Sources reached this week wished me luck but absolutely would not divulge info. The Pittsburgh Penguins org and all related principals were under lock and key. As were most others.
This week, I debated 93-7 the Fan morning host Chris Mack about (not) protecting Jeff Carter…A day later, on Twiter, Mack admitted I was right. It’s the small victories that make life worth living.
PHN Projected Pittsburgh Penguins Protected and Unprotected List
Protected Forwards (7)
- Sidney Crosby
- Evgeni Malkin
- Jake Guentzel
- Bryan Rust
- Kasperi Kapanen
- Brandon Tanev
- Jared McCann
- Jason Zucker
- Teddy Blueger
- Jeff Carter
- Zach Aston-Reese
Why: I think the first five are easy. No. 6 Tanev is too valuable both in a defensive role, in the locker room, and for goodness sakes, he’s the crash-and-bang energy guy the Penguins would desperately be trying to replace. His contract has four more years at an increasingly reasonably $3.5 million AAV, and he showed with a little sunlight he can put some numbers on the stat sheet. He scored 16 points (7-9-16) in 32 games this season.
I also think it’s easier to replace Teddy Blueger than McCann. Blueger’s speed and tenacity are nice additions, and I feel sheepish bringing up the negatives. He’s a bit light, and his faceoff percentage leaves a bit to be desired for a defensive center.
His new contract doesn’t change the expansion draft calculus. Also, Montreal Canadiens center Phillip Danault will be a free agent. That must tempt Seattle, who will have exclusive negotiating rights for two days beginning on Sunday. It also presents an opportunity for the Pittsburgh Penguins if they lose a center.
Aston-Reese is the sleeper here. He is very good at whatever role he chooses. When the Penguins put him in a defensive role, he’s 100% defense and does a remarkable job. When head coach Mike Sullivan cast him in a third-line role, he promptly scored a career-high nine goals and 16 points in 45 games.
Aston-Reese was also visibly quicker this season, but he’s a third or primarily a fourth-line player.
McCann is a 20-goal scorer on a $2.94 million contract and winger who is just finding the full potential of his game. At 25-year-old, he’s stepping into his prime and has the potential to be a top-six winger.
Strategy: If the Penguins expose McCann–he’s gone. 100%. McCann is fast, gritty, and versatile with a sub $3 million price tag. He’s a prototypical Ron Francis player. The fallout for the Penguins is there would be no chance that Francis selects a larger salary, like Jason Zucker.
Why not Carter? Carter’s 13 goals in 20 games, including playoffs, was eye-opening. But before he arrived in Pittsburgh, Carter was nearing retirement. Compare Carter’s resurgence to Bill Guerin in 2009. The energy, the excitement, the chemistry clicked, and it revived Guerin, but it was also short-lived.
Francis is no dummy. He’ll pass on the 36-year-old Carter. And if Seattle does select Carter, the Penguins have $2.8 million and trade pieces like Zucker to spend on a third-line center. Or they can happily re-insert Blueger into the role with Zucker or McCann, too.
Protected Defensemen (3)
- Kris Letang
- Brian Dumoulin
- Mike Matheson
John Marino, P.O. Joseph, Mark Friedman, Juuso Riikola.
- Marcus Petterson
- Cody Ceci’s rights
Editor’s note: there are conflicting stories from the NHL regarding the exemption rules for Friedman and Riikola. Regardless if they’re exempt, that will not change our projections.
Why: Matheson instead of Pettersson seems to be an easy call from this chair. After Matheson’s season in which he scored 16 points (5-11-16) in 44 games but was increasingly good throughout the season, his contract is tenable. He has five years and $24.375 million left.
If he hit the free-agent market, that contract for a 26-year-old would be fair market value. In Matheson’s five-year career, he’s had two very good years, two bad years, and one average year. He surely seemed to fit the Pittsburgh Penguins mold–and the Penguins had one of the top-five scoring defenses in the league, too.
The Penguins have P.O. Joseph, who will soon be kicking down the door for NHL ice. Pettersson has four years remaining on his contract with a $4.083 million AAV. Don’t downplay Pettersson’s skillset but his contract, lack of physicality, and offense, combined with Joseph’s impending readiness, make Pettersson the odd-man-out.
Depending on the defensemen available, Pettersson may well be an attractive candidate to Seattle. A steady defenseman with a quick first pass. He fits Francis’s M.O.
M. Night Shyamalan twist: GM Ron Hextall hopes to clear cap space, knows Seattle won’t select Zucker, and exposes Matheson, who would likely be Seattle’s pick.
I’m a bit surprised this is even a discussion. Jarry had a bad playoff series. Before that, this would be laughable. Six playoff games don’t erase a career trajectory. The Pittsburgh Penguins have a starting goalie, and unless they have a deal in the works for another, Jarry stays.