July is a feeding frenzy for NHL teams as July 1 typically opens the flood gates for free agency. Players and agents gobble large contracts like burgers off the grill. Some teams smile for years. Others grimace as ill-fitting players linger for years on overpaid contracts. The Pittsburgh Penguins have had a few spectacular July celebrations, one of which crippled their franchise, another saved it, and one provided an unheralded re-signing that ultimately saved a Stanley Cup.
And the Penguins organization had one July 1, which sparks months of debate followed by two years of celebration.
Honorable Mention: Signing Brandon Tanev
On July 1, 2019, the Pittsburgh Penguins overpaid for Winnipeg Jets fourth-liner Brandon Tanev. Former GM Jim Rutherford splashed a six-year, $21 million deal.
Surely, you don’t pay that much for a fourth-liner?!
The Penguins and fans have come to love “Turbo,” who provides a much-needed spark throughout the Penguins lineup and a dose of physicality.
5. Nick Bonino Trade
Goodbye soft third-line center, hello Nick Bonino. On July 28, 2015, the Penguins shuffled the soon-to-be well-paid Brandon Sutter to Vancouver for middling center Bonino, depth defenseman Adam Clendening, and a second-round pick.
The Penguins later used the pick to select Filip Gustavsson, a centerpiece of the Penguins trade for Derrick Brassard, which is another topic for another day.
Bonino was a little-producing pivot for most of his first season with the Penguins. He had just 10 points in his first 40 games. Then Evgeni Malkin was injured, and Bonino slotted between Carl Hagelin and some cat named Phil Kessel.
H-B-K line was born. The Pittsburgh Penguins 2016 Stanley Cup was a direct result.
4. Hello, Rob Scuderi
Scuderi was a minor leaguer who spent more than four seasons with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. He had a 57-game run with the Penguins, followed by a full NHL season in 2006-07. Scuderi was an afterthought-type d-man. He was easily replaceable or upgradeable, right?
On July 2, 2007, the Penguins issued a two-year $1.425 million contract. No big deal, right? At the end of that two-year contract, this was the result.
#3: Phil the Thrill
After hammering away at a trade for weeks, the Toronto Maple Leafs and GM Brian Burke were still holding onto 40-goal scorer Phil Kessel.
Kessel had worn out his welcome in Toronto, the fans were getting vicious and the media made the fans look tame.
Former Penguins GM Jim Rutherford patiently waited for the Kessel market to thin and the price to fall to his liking. Many thought it could happen at the 2015 draft, but there were still no Kessel takers.
Until July 1, 2015. Instead of splashing the cash on free agents, the Penguins landed a hot-dog champion. In exchange for top prospect Kasperi Kapanen, who was the Penguins’ first-round pick a year prior, a 2016 first-round pick, and useable depth players, the Penguins got Kessel…who became a two-time Stanley Cup champion.
Kessel didn’t overwhelm anyone until February of 2016. After a lackluster, almost quiet season, Kessel began to warm to new coach Mike Sullivan’s philosophy and center Evgeni Malkin. The pair were red-hot until Malkin was injured and Kessel played with Bonino.
Neither Kessel nor the Penguins were ever the same.
#2: Goodbye, Jaromir
July 11, 2001, became one of the darkest days in Penguins’ history. Reports of the time indicated the Penguins scouting department jumped for joy when the Penguins got three first-round drafted prospects (Kris Beech, Michael Sivek, Ross Lupaschuk) and a truckload of cash for Jaromir Jagr and defenseman Frantisek Kucera.
The prospects all fizzled spectacularly. None established themselves as NHL regulars. It was like a torrential downpour just before the grand finale. Jagr didn’t win a Stanley Cup for Washington, either. It was the biggest trade in the NHL since Wayne Gretzky tearfully apologized to Messier and accepted a deal to the LA Kings in August 1988.
Perhaps someday, the Penguins and Jagr will officially make up, and Jagr will take his place among the Penguins Hall of Famers. Of course, Jagr will have to retire first.
1. Draft Day, 2005.
Sidney Crosby. Kris Letang.
It’s the second-best draft day in Pittsburgh Penguins history, behind 1984, when the team rejected all offers and picked Mario Lemieux. Following the locked-out season, the Penguins were the improbable winners of the 2005 NHL Draft Lottery, which included all 30 teams.
The ping pong ball picked the Penguins, who had the worst record in the NHL during the 2003-04 season before the 2004-05 season was lost.
Hello, Sidney Crosby. July 30, 2005.
However, the third-round pick has been just as long-lasting, very influential to the organization, and is one of the last three members of the Penguins core.
Combined, Crosby and Letang have played 1902 games with 620 goals and 1907 points. Oh, and three Stanley Cups.