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Penguins RFAs Force Rutherford to Make List of Priorities

Who should be a long-term part of the franchise and who still has something to prove?

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Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: The Penguins will be facing a salary-cap squeeze this summer, albeit of a different variety than usual.

The NHL’s payroll lid is expected to rise by at least $3 million; Jim Rutherford‘s team finished the 2017-18 season roughly $300,000 under the current $75 million limit. Unlike last year, though, there will be no mass exodus, as only Carter Rowney is unrestricted among the team’s six pending free agents.

That might sound good on the surface, but there are still decisions to be made regarding the five restricted free agents, or RFAs: Riley SheahanJamie OleksiakBryan RustTom Kühnhackl and Dominik Simon.

First, some ground rules. If NHL teams hope to retain restricted free agents, they must tender what are called ‘qualifying offers’ to them. If a player made over $1 million in the previous season, the qualifying offer is a one-year deal at the same salary. If a player earned less than $1 million, he will be offered a small raise — 5 percent if over $660,000, 10 percent if under that mark.

Knowing this, the Penguins are looking at a minimum additional expenditure of $150,000, so they could feasibly roll all the RFAs over without hitting the cap. Of course, the players must consent to this. If they choose, they can explore restricted free agency fully, but their original team holds the right to match any outside offer.

Then, there’s the possibility that the Penguins will want to lock up one or more of these gents for the longer term, as they did with RFAs Justin SchultzBrian Dumoulin and Conor Sheary last summer. Best guess? The team will approach Rust, Sheahan and Oleksiak regarding possible multi-year deals.

Rust (2017-18 salary: $640K)

Rust, 25, seems the surest bet to return in whatever form, considering how well he’s fit into the Penguins’ puck-pursuit style. On locker cleanout day last week in Cranberry, he sounded like a man assured of another run at a championship with the only organization he’s ever known.

“It would’ve been nice to make it three (in a row) but we’ll come back next year and try to do it again,” Rust remarked. “I think everyone in here kinda analyzes his own game. That motivates us to be that much better for next year.”

A playoff scoring slump aside, Rust could afford to keep doing what he’s been doing. The third-year Penguin was the team’s very best shot-share (Corsi) player in 2017-18, with the Penguins at 57 percent with him on the ice. He was also one of a handful of skaters who finished on the positive side of even-strength goal differential.

Sheahan ($2.075M)

Like Rust, who has Patric HörnqvistPhil Kessel, Sheary and possibly Daniel Sprong to compete with at right wing, Sheahan would be looking at some heavy competition at center, although Derick Brassard‘s expressed willingness to play wing might change that by training camp.

The 26-year-old Sheahan declined to speculate on his chances of returning, but he sounded grateful for the opportunity to jump from the rebuilding Red Wings to the peaking Penguins, regardless of how he was deployed.

“Whatever ice time you get, whatever role you get into, you just try to contribute,” Sheahan said. “Derick’s a great player, so there’s healthy competition I guess, but you try to contribute however you can. Whether it’s a PK role, PP role, you do what you can.”

Sheahan was a subpar shot-share player (49 percent) at even strength, but he was a net positive in scoring chances. It’s also important to note Sheahan was essentially used as a defensive specialist, getting 64 percent of his zone starts in his own zone and eating up just over two minutes of short-handed time per game.

“It was great, just to be relied upon,” he said. “It was a lot of fun.”

Oleksiak ($965K)

Oleksiak, 25, was in a similar situation to Sheahan, traded to the Penguins during the season by the team that drafted and developed him. Like Sheahan, though, Oleksiak felt he filled a need on a Penguins team that was a work in progress for much of its three-peat effort.

“I think I brought a different element,” the 6-foot-7 Oleksiak told Pittsburgh Hockey Now. “I’m a bigger guy so I tried to use that. But at the same time, I pride myself in being able to skate and this is a team that prides itself in being quick on the transition and playing with speed, and getting the puck to the forwards as quick as possible. Our big strength is offense and I tried to complement it as best as possible.”

Oleksiak was on the positive side in shots, chances and goals, and roughly middle of the pack in the context of the team. He presents an intriguing package of size and skill, albeit one that didn’t yield much consistency in the NHL until a December trade from the Stars to the Penguins.

As he has said multiple times previous, Oleksiak reiterated how easy the Penguins’ veterans made the transition from Dallas to Pittsburgh.

“I can’t say enough about Pittsburgh,” Oleksiak said. “It (was) just an easy transition. … You hear so many great things. Just kinda coming in and how welcoming they are. I was a guy who was in and out of the lineup, a healthy scratch (with Dallas). You come in and there’s guys who’ve won Stanley Cups and they welcomed me right in.”

Kühnhackl ($625K)

Kühnhackl has won a couple of Cups himself, but considering the logjam at wing, the Penguins could be justified in letting him walk.

The 26-year-old kills penalties and brings more of a physical game than most on the team, but the Penguins’ share of shots (44 percent) and goals (33 percent) with him on the ice in 2017-18 were simply abysmal.

Yes, Kühnhackl appeared more lively in the playoffs, but he also ended up alongside Brassard as Mike Sullivan tried in vain to stretch his forward depth to the limit. If there’s an RFA this season to whom the Penguins might simply say goodbye, it’s the German-born Kühnhackl, who was in that same Wilkes-Barre-Scranton Class of 2016 that produced Rust, Sheary and Matt Murray.

Simon ($693K)

Then there’s the curious case of the 23-year-old Simon. The Czech winger finished the season with a broken thumb, but even accounting for that he appeared jittery in his first playoff run in the NHL. At the same time, Simon showed enough hands and hockey sense for Sullivan to place him on Crosby’s wing from time to time.

Simon said last week he needs to focus on “playing within the system” if and when he returns to the NHL.

“It was an unreal experience for me,” Simon said. “I’m thankful for that. It helps you to be calmer for next time. Confidence is a big thing and I feel this (experience) gives you a lot. Every day being up here is unreal practice for you. During games and practice, you see the stuff you should do and it starts to be a normal thing for you.”

It’s difficult to separate Simon’s on-ice numbers from Crosby’s, since the rookie played more than two-thirds of his minutes this season on Sid’s wing. But the mild success Simon experienced — remember the ‘Sid and the New Kids’ line with Sprong on the other side? — suggests that the Penguins will renew Simon for a show-me season in 2018-19.

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Restricted free agency is far from the challenge posted by unrestricted free agency, but there are still decisions to be made.

Even though Rutherford has hinted a trade or two might be in the offing this summer, some brain power will be spent on who should be a long-term part of the franchise and who still has something to prove next year.

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A lifelong hockey addict, Matt has been fortunate enough to make his career in his sport of choice, working in high school, juniors, college and the pros in various multimedia roles. Previous to joining PHN, Matt was a credentialed Penguins/NHL beat reporter for the past two seasons, including coverage of the 2017 Stanley Cup Final. He signed on with PHN in Feb. 2018 as co-owner, contributing commentary and analysis in various forms.

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