The list of players the Pittsburgh Penguins have ever signed as free agents is not a long and glorious list full of future Hall of Fame players. The Penguins best players have come from the top of the draft and through shrewd trades. The free agent list is mostly full of players who could be signed on a sinking budget and otherwise played in the minors. However, there are just enough players on the list who made deep, and profound impacts on the franchise to lead them to five Stanley Cups.
Honorable mentions go to chaps like Ty Conklin (2007), Bobby Farnham (2013) who provided endless debates but little on-ice fun and Dennis Bonvie (1999) whose pugilistic ability to excite a crowd helped build the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins.
#5 Paul Martin (2010)
Martin wasn’t a flashy defenseman or a perennial all-star. He was a steady presence who fulfilled his five-year, $25 million contract. Martin ate significant minutes for the entirety of his Penguins career (his lowest average ice time was 22:47 in 2014-15). He also blocked over 100 shots and scored at least 20 points in every full season.
#4 Matt Cullen (2015)
The uber-talented Penguins of the Sidney Crosby era were steeped in disappointment. After winning the Stanley Cup in 2009, the Penguins core stumbled. The organization stumbled, too. Gone was the pristine visage, replaced by the rancor and bumbling of the 2014 house cleaning of GM Ray Shero and coach Dan Bylsma.
Matt Cullen was thought to be at the end. He signed a one-year, $800,000 deal as a depth center. The Penguins had no idea “Dad” was home.
Through the coaching-change tumult of the 2015-16 season, Cullen established himself as a locker room leader unafraid to hold anyone, and everyone, accountable. New head coach Mike Sullivan called him “an extension of the coaching staff.” Cullen scored 32 points (16g, 16a) and the Penguins finally tasted success, again…and again with 2016 and 2017 Stanley Cup championships.
After playing for Minnesota last season, Cullen re-signed with the Penguins last month, for his third farewell tour.
#3 Bryan Trottier (1990)
In 1990, the Penguins assembled elite level talent and young players who were about to break through. Lemieux, Hall of Fame defenseman Paul Coffey, and former Vezina Trophy-winning goalie Tom Barrasso anchored the Penguins. Young players like Mark Recchi and Kevin Stevens were soon to make their mark.
But the Penguins needed someone to tie it all together. The Islanders felt Bryan Trottier, their all-time leading scorer, was washed up at 33-years old (Athletes’ training was much different back then). So, the Islanders loss was the Penguins’ gain. Trottier only scored 24 goals in three seasons with the Penguins, but his mark was indelible.
Former Penguins color commentator and play-by-play announcer Paul Steigerwald told PHN, “(Trottier) was a calming influence on a team still learning how to win.”
Penguins historian and longtime hockey journalist Bob Grove added more praise, “Having Trottier set an example for an 18-year-old (Jaromir) Jagr was a long-term investment which worked out just as well as their short-term investment in Trottier.”
The 1990-91 Penguins captivated a city en route to the franchise’s first Stanley Cup championship. Edit: (In 1992) as classrooms around western PA turned on televisions to watch the monstrous celebration at Three Rivers Stadium, it was Trottier who had the most fun. The “old man” hijacked the Stanley Cup and slid across rain-soaked tarps to the delight of tens of thousands of Pittsburghers who had just received their first taste of championship hockey.
#2 Martin Straka (1997)
Martin Straka was the Penguins first-round choice (19th overall) in 1992. Things didn’t work out. Straka played in 157 games over three seasons, from 1992-1995. He had a breakout sophomore year in 1993-94 with 30 goals, but slumped again in his third season and was dealt to Ottawa for defenseman Norm MacIver and Troy Murray. A year later, the Senators traded Straka to the Islanders, which sent him to the Florida Panthers, after just 22 games. The Panthers chose not to re-sign Straka who became an unrestricted free agent.
The Penguins and Straka reunited, and the scrappy speedster became one of the lucky Jaromir Jagr linemates before he joined forces with Alexei Kovalev and Robert Lang to form one of the most potent Penguins lines of all-time. Straka tallied 83 points in 1998-99 with Jagr (35g, 48a), then 95 points (27g, 68a) with Lang and Kovalev in 2000-01.
The Penguins dealt Straka to the L.A. Kings as part of cost-cutting moves in November 2003, but the 5-foot-9 forward finally made his mark on the Penguins. In Straka’s second go-round, he scored 333 points (128g, 205a) in 366 games.
#1 Sergei Gonchar (2005)
Before he was the “defenseman whisperer,” Sergei Gonchar was the Penguins top defenseman. Following the lost season of 2004-05, the NHL instituted a salary cap and revenue sharing. The Penguins again had a chance to compete and dove into the free agent market. Gonchar, the long-time Washington Capital, was dealt to the Boston Bruins at the 2004 trade deadline but did not re-sign.
The five-year, $25 million deal initially looked like a bust. The 2005-06 Penguins were a disaster. Lemieux retired due to a heart condition, rookie Sidney Crosby was on the wrong side of team veterans, and other free agent signing Ziggy Palffy essentially left the team. Gonchar set a career high in penalty minutes (100), posted a -13 rating and his lowest point total (58) in five years.
But it all began to click for Gonchar later in the season. He became the defensive rock the Penguins needed. The following two seasons (2006-07, 2007-08), Gonchar received Norris trophy consideration (7th, 4th) as the young Penguins with Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal and Marc-Andre Fleury emerged as championship contenders. The 2008 Penguins lost to the Detroit Red Wings in the Stanley Cup Final but returned in 2009 to beat the Red Wings and lift Lord Stanley.
Sergei Gonchar was the anchor of those blueline corps. He played over 22 minutes during the playoff runs and scored 14 points in both 2008 and 2009. Gonchar was initially considered one of General Manager Craig Patrick’s follies, but Gonchar’s Penguins legacy is etched in silver, as a player, and as a coach.