The Pittsburgh Penguins have undergone just a few changes this offseason. Ownership cleaned house at the top and the team could see its goalie, longtime top-pairing defenseman, and energetic left winger leave via free agency. The new Penguins front office, led by Kyle Dubas, got a late start, and we’re down to the final week.
At the risk of reading too much into the lack of new contracts, it seems that Jason Zucker, Brian Dumoulin, and Tristan Jarry are headed for free agency to peddle their wares on the open market and see what’s over the hockey horizon.
We’re just looking for answers from the great beyond.
There isn’t a realistic internal option, so the Penguins must replace Zucker’s top-six ice time from outside the organization. Fortunately, or unfortunately, the left-wing class is top-heavy. Some legitimate scoring threats will be available on July 1, but depth is not a friend in this class.
Last season, Zucker was finally healthy. After three seasons of injury-plagued frustration, Zucker ripped 27 goals as the nightly side-saddle to Evgeni Malkin. His speed and energy were a bright spot in a dreary Penguins season.
However, his contract, with a $5.5 million annual cap hit, expires June 30, and he will be free to test the market. His injury history presents a significant risk to whoever signs him, just as his 27 goals represent significant potential when he’s healthy.
If the Penguins are not that team, there are four — and only four — potential replacements on the UFA market.
Pittsburgh Penguins UFA Targets:
1. Tyler Bertuzzi
“Bert” is believed to be asking for six years, $36 million. Considering that Zucker made $5.5 million, that seems to be a good deal and independent of inflation.
Bertuzzi, 28, battled fluke injuries over the past couple of seasons, including getting hit by the puck on the hand and missing four weeks, then returning and getting hit on the other hand, which required surgery and forced him to miss six weeks.
When healthy, he has a 30-goal pedigree and filled the net during the Boston Bruins’ Round One upset loss to the Florida Panthers. The winger had 10 points, including five goals, in seven games.
Of course, the Bruins are attempting to re-sign Bertuzzi.
He’s a gritty, energetic, scoring LW who likes to play near the net. If $6 million is the price, Dubas may want to set up camp on Bertuzzi’s front lawn to be first in line at noon on July 1.
2. Alex Killorn
Killorn is a winner. He’s filled numerous roles and is a two-time Stanley Cup champion with the Tampa Bay Lightning. He can play with the elite talent or in the bottom-six.
He’s a 20-goal scorer who will do many of the little things, but perhaps not as many of the big things.
At 33 years old, he probably won’t exceed his expiring $4.45 million AAV, but he’ll be in that ballpark on a new deal that probably stretches three, maybe four years. The 6-foot-1, 198-pound LW plays a bigger game, so he could fit well digging pucks out of the corners for Malkin.
3. Michael Bunting
This is the tricky one on the board. Bunting can be a gritty wall player with a nose for the net and good offensive production. He can also disappear. The streaky winger has fought from the ECHL to the NHL, first through the Arizona system. He was Arizona’s fourth-round pick in 2014 but didn’t hit the NHL regularly until Dubas brought his former Sault St. Marie player to Toronto in 2021.
In Toronto, Bunting posted consecutive 23-goal seasons, but was a scratch in the series-ending, Game 5 Round One loss to Tampa Bay. Bunting was suspended for three games after a Game 1 match penalty in which he launched into defenseman Erik Cernak’s head, drawing a match penalty for interference.
Correction: Bunting was scratched in Game 5, Round One.
Bunting, 27, made $950,000 last season and will get a substantial raise, but just how much is a very good question. In summers past, that would put him in the $4 million range. He should be easily affordable to the Penguins there, but perhaps not as the number climbs.
The Dubas connections are undeniable, but is he the right guy?
4. J.T. Compher
Does Compher, 27, have the offensive skills to skate with Evgeni Malkin nightly? There’s not an obvious answer. Last season, Compher posted 52 points (17-35-52) in 82 games. He played center and left wing, and even spent time at right wing.
In Colorado, he was primarily a center. He’s on the list as a reach because the list is paper thin, and it’s not implausible the Penguins could see a player with skills to fill the role. His inclusion on our list underscores the difficulty Dubas will face in filling the slot.
The good is that he’s fast, a relentless forechecker, and offers lineup versatility. The bad is that he’s not a high-scoring LW guaranteed to generate those 27 goals.
Compher might be the best answer to the Penguins’ third-line center need.
Compher’s cap hit was $3.5 million. His 52 points and versatility probably put him in the $5 million range.
Tomas Tatar. Evan Rodrigues. Jonathan Drouin. Max Pacioretty.
You can see why we limited the list to four. The drop is steep. That is also something Dubas will be forced to weigh when he negotiates with Zucker or any of the above.