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Unsigned UFAs: Penguins & Former Penguins Still Job Hunting

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Pittsburgh Penguins, NHL free agents

Show me the money. Perhaps former Pittsburgh Penguins winger Evan Rodrigues scored a career-high 19 goals and 43 points, but he remains on the NHL free agent market. So does Danton Heinen, Phil Kessel, and a handful of other former Pittsburgh Penguins, including Jack Johnson.

NHL owners threw around hundreds of millions of dollars on July 13 with the same care as pork spending in Congress, but the signings have slowed. Big names like Nazem Kadri and John Klingberg remain unsigned, adding a bit of market uncertainty, but that should not affect a couple of players who have worn the Penguins sweater.

Evan Rodrigues has not yet collected that full-time NHL role or big raise he earned last season. Phil Kessel’s monstrous eight-year, $64 million contract also expired.

Pittsburgh Penguins & Former Pens Job Hunting

1. Phil Kessel

That giant contract which the Toronto Maple Leafs generously ate a portion to facilitate the trade of Phil Kessel to the Penguins and acquire Kasperi Kapanen has finally ended. Over the life of the contract, he scored 177 regular season goals and played in every game. His iron man streak is intact, even though he’s delivered just 86 hits in those eight years. Last season, the king of the hot dog troll scored 52 points (8-44-52) for Arizona, and 38 of those points were even strength. He’s got some hockey left.

He’ll take a pay cut. Maybe one-year, $3 million for the largely one-dimensional player?

2. Evan Rodrigues

E-Rod. He persevered when others might have given up. Six years of floating in the ether between the NHL and AHL, a steady diet of press box nachos and demotions. He got his big chance when the Penguins lineup was decimated by injuries at the start of the 2021-22 season, though he earned the chance with his work with the Penguins in the prior season. Head coach Mike Sullivan immediately installed Rodrigues as the No. 2 center, and Rodrigues put up the points. He finished with 19 goals, but he was shooting from everywhere in the final games to get that 20th. He set a season-high with 12 shots against the Montreal Canadiens in November and had two other games with nine shots.

We expected Rodrigues to get close to $3 million on the market, but perhaps he falls close to a multi-year deal in the $2 million range.

3. Danton Heinen

Hey, 18 goals is 18 goals. Heinen finished chances and was not bad on the forecheck, either. He’s a poor man’s sniper but isn’t great on puck retrieval or net-front play. He’s a finisher, and surely someone needs 18 goals? He will be a cheap source of goals.

He probably earned himself another show-me deal worth $2.5? Maybe two years, $5 million?

Derick Brassard

Ok, maybe we’re poking the bear by including the infamous Derick Brassard on the list. However, Brassard has been a solid utility player for several seasons. He played center and wing, top-six, and bottom-six for Philadelphia and Edmonton last season. He will soon turn 35, and his best is behind him. He’s fallen to less than a .5 points-per-game player, but he’s got one more year left at a bargain bin deal.

Zach Aston-Reese

One of the best defensive forwards in the game. Aston-Reese’s biggest issue is himself. He focuses on defense and shuts down his offensive game, which could be 15-goal worthy.

On Feb. 1, Aston-Reese admitted he needed to shoot more but remained focused on defense.

“Since it hasn’t been going in for me, (I’m) just kind of in such a defensive mindset, even in the offensive zone, not really thinking too much about offense,” said Aston-Reese. “(I need to start) putting myself in scoring positions or shooting positions–(I’m) kind of always worrying about defense a little bit too much…”

Shoot, Zach!

He’s probably worth a $1 million deal, a pay cut from the $1.75 million he made last season.

Brandon Sutter

Long-haul COVID cost Sutter all of last season. The Vancouver Canuck already settled for a bargain-basement $1.125 million deal with the Canucks. The 33-year-old center will have to show he can return to hockey.

He could be a PTO candidate if he doesn’t sign on somewhere in that $1 million range.

Jack Johnson

Reviled amongst the Penguins blogosphere and analytics community who were befuddled that NHL teams didn’t heed their advice, that’s now Stanley Cup winner Jack Johnson.

The sturdy, stay-home defenseman played 74 games for the Colorado Avalanche and most playoff games, too. He’s a 6/7 D-man now, but he’ll catch on somewhere for $1 million or so. Colorado might just keep him in the fold after Kadri picks his spot.

Former Pittsburgh Penguins unlikely to get NHL Contracts

Daniel Sprong

He had 20 points in 63 games, split between 47 games with the Washington Capitals and 16 with the Seattle Kraken. Overall, he scored 14 goals. His lack of overall game probably sends him to Europe to cash in. Otherwise, he’s a two-way deal candidate in the NHL.

Dominik Simon

Another player who raises Penguins fans’ dander. Simon was traded to Anaheim in the Rickard Rakell deal. The Czech national booted him at the Worlds for getting into a fight with a teammate. He apologized and said it was the frustration of a challenging year. Simon makes his linemates better and does a lot of the little things, but he doesn’t score enough points. He had 13 points (3-10-13) in 72 games last season.

Carter Rowney

The pride of Grand Prairie, AB. He paid his dues, and then some, before winning the Stanley Cup with the Penguins in 2017. Rowney fought his way up from the Wheeling Nailers (ECHL). At 33, he’s nearing the end. In 26 games, he had four points with the Detroit Red Wings.

He was never fleet of foot, so he’s another two-way deal, PTO candidates.

James Neal

The former 40-goal scorer-slash-Evgeni Malkin sidekick has probably come to the end of his career, though we thought that last season, too. Neal, 34, is a goal scorer who has been slowed by injury. He had four points and just two goals in 19 games with the St. Louis Blues. He also played 28 games with the AHL’s  Springfield Falcons.

In 896 career games, Neal has 296 career goals. He played in the Stanley Cup Final with the Vegas Golden Knights in 2018.

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Pittsburgh Hockey Now Editor-in-Chief, formerly 93.7 The Fan, Sportsnet Hockey Tonight, NHL Home Ice. Catch Dan tweeting @theDanKingerski and the official @pghhockeynow account.

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Vince Gori
Vince Gori
23 days ago

Fair analysis on these players. A few still have something to offer. I’d take a flyer on Phil, ZAR, JJ, Erod, Heinen, and Simon if I had a slot.

Ethan
23 days ago
Reply to  Vince Gori

Maybe Zar, Erod, or Heinikin if the money is right. But lets not get too carried away…

Dean
Dean
23 days ago

I still struggle with ERod. He would have to show-me more than Heinen would. Anything more than a $1M for ERod would be risky. I would want to see that his 30 game hot streak wasn’t a once-in-a-career thing. Thankfully, he doesn’t fit the getting bigger mold that Hextall is looking for. I would put Archibald in the minors, sign ZAR, and try to move McGinn. The Hurricanes are pretty shrewd. They let McGinn walk and burn the Pens.

Ethan
23 days ago
Reply to  Dean

Injuries to 2 centers might have you thanking your stars for Erod.

Alan Smith
23 days ago

Liked the hard work and speed they all have! Pens play a speed game defensively. Erod, Reese, Simon and Heinin are all good at flying for loose pucks and forcing defenders to have to make bad quick passes! They all would do penalty kills as well! For the price you could have a quality forth line for 4 million! Go for it! Make the best third line possible!

Bob
Bob
23 days ago
Reply to  Alan Smith

I liked Heinen. He was a smart player who knew where to get to the open areas to score goals. Will miss him.

Cal
Cal
23 days ago

The only one I would like to see back is Zar on the cheap.

Pete
Pete
23 days ago

I think a 3rd or 4th line of ERod, Heinen, and ZAR would be better than what we have signed!

James
James
23 days ago

Bringing Bach Zach Aston-Reese would provide another layer of defensive forwarding to the bottom six. Not sure how our new acquisitions fill that role, so it may be redundant? But I do really like him on our team. Our PK surely missed him last season. Nothing tantalizing out there to my eyes that can make the team better. I think we need more secondary scoring types for our botton six. I’m thinking we need to trade a forward and/or maybe a Dman for a middle six scoring winger that checks some boxes. I remember all too well how we just… Read more »

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