If the Pittsburgh Penguins hope to compete for another Stanley Cup championship, there will need to be some changes, especially after their second-consecutive early playoff exit. Changes will need to include the roster, coaching staff, and team philosophy, especially regarding player management and utilization. Most importantly, the teams’ on-ice attitude, passion, and hunger that was sorely lacking during their Qualifying Round series versus the Montreal Canadiens will need to be restored.
Current Roster Analysis
The NHL extended the Collective Bargaining Agreement through the 2025-26 season. The result will be a flat salary cap of $81.5 million for 2020-21 and likely for a couple of seasons beyond as the league looks to mitigate the financial impact of COVID-19. The Penguins have their core of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang signed through at least 2021-22.
Signed forwards age and 2020-21 salary
- Evgeni Malkin – 34, $9,500,000
- Sidney Crosby – 33, $8,700,000
- Jake Guentzel – 25, $6,000,000
- Jason Zucker – 28, $5,500,000
- Patric Hörnqvist – 33, $5,300,000
- Brandon Tanev – 28, $3,500,000
- Bryan Rust – 28, $3,500,000
- Zach Aston-Reese – 26, $1,000,000
- Teddy Blueger – 26, $750,000
Signed defense age and 2020-21 salary
- Kris Letang – 33, $7,250,000
- Brian Dumoulin – 28, $4,100,000
- Marcus Pettersson – 24, $4,025,175
- Jack Johnson – 33, $3,250.000
- John Marino – 23, $925,000
- Chad Ruhwedel – 30, $700,000
Expect most of these players to remain with the Penguins and to be key contributors. There is always a chance for one or two veterans to be part of a trade package to help provide some salary relief for another deal or as Rutherford has done before by making moves just to shake up the locker room.
Johnson has been the subject of the fans’ wrath, but moving him will not be so easy. He had a very poor showing in the Qualifying Round series versus the Canadiens with a minus-four rating and no points in four games. Johnson is 33 years old and has a contract through 2022-23. To trade him the Penguins will need to take back a salary cap problem from another team. If he’s not traded, he will likely remain as a veteran sixth or seventh depth defenseman on the roster.
Unrestricted free agents likely to be gone
- Justin Schultz – 30, $5,500,000
- Conor Sheary – 28, $3,000,000
- Patrick Marleau – 40, $700,000
There is a possibility Sheary comes back but it would be at a team-friendly contract. There will be other suitors in the league who could use a veteran winger at a mid-level price. Marleau has likely played his last game at 40 years old, and Schultz had a horrible postseason — dropping his salary will provide valuable cap relief.
Restricted free agents and arbitration-eligible players on the current roster
- Matt Murray – 26, $3,750,000
- Evan Rodrigues – 27, $2,000,000
- Jared McCann – 25, $1,250,000
- Anthony Angello – 24, $833,750
- Sam Lafferty – 25, $767,500
- Dominik Simon – 26, $750,000
- Juuso Riikola – 26, $850,000
- Tristan Jarry – 25, $675,000
Rodrigues was a 50/50 proposition to be gone, but with offseason surgeries to Malkin and Aston-Reese, he will be valuable as a depth center who can play on any line. Murray cemented his legacy in Pittsburgh winning two Stanley Cups, but the emergence of Jarry this season and Murray’s higher salary will make him expendable.
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The rest of this group will provide part of the youth that will help reduce the average age of the team that was at 28.2 during the 2020 Playoffs. Many in this group performed well when many Penguins’ veterans missed games due to injuries this past season. Jarry will be the unquestioned starting goalie for the Penguins moving forward. During the regular season, the core of Crosby, Malkin, and Letang will need to have their minutes monitored and possibly even scratched from some games to keep them fresh for a long playoff run. This group of restricted free agents will be needed to help fill that role.
Nick Bjugstad had spinal surgery for a herniated disk and it is unsure what his status will be when the team opens training camp. He carries a cap hit of $4,100,000 and could be stashed on injured reserve for most of the season. Should he recover and be cleared to play, he could provide depth as the team makes a push for the playoff, or if he’s unable to return, they can just let his contract expire after the season.
Because the Penguins have traded away many of their first-round draft picks over recent years, the system is not highly rated in the league. However, there are some prospects that can help the club next season.
The top prospects in the system are Nathan Legare, Filip Hallander, Pierre-Oliver Joseph, and Samuel Poulin. Samuel Poulin was the Penguins’ first-round selection in 2019 and put up 77 points (32 goals, 45 assists) in 46 games this season and has the talent to develop into a quality power forward.
Joseph is a quality defense prospect who could start to see some playing time this season. If any of these guys play this coming season, they won’t be major point producers, but they can provide some speed, youth, and enthusiasm that can be contagious on a veteran team. The club also recently signed college free agent Josh Maniscalco from Arizona State who could compete for playing time this season as a puck-moving, offensive-minded defenseman.
Offseason Roster Needs and Free Agency Wish List
The Penguins will need to add at least one top-four defenseman to replace Schultz. There also needs to be a quality third line led by a proven center. The top two lines can score and handle most of the offensive load, but there needs to be a revamped third line that can play with speed and passion and be responsible in their own end. The so-called “fourth” line with Tanev, Aston-Reese, and Blueger is perfect in their role as a defensive group that can hound the opposition’s top line.
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A veteran goaltender may also be brought in at a discount to mentor Jarry and give competition and position depth with Casey DeSmith. There will likely be a trade or two to help achieve these roster objectives, but with a tight salary cap and everyone looking for help, trades can be unpredictable.
Free-agent wish list defense with age and 2020 salary
- Alex Pietrangelo – 30, $7,500,000
- Tyson Barrie – 28, $6,000,000
- Tory Krug – 29, $5,000,000
The Penguins have plenty of forwards, so the priority during the upcoming free agency period should be landing a defenseman for the top-four group. Pietrangelo will be the big prize in this year’s free agency pool. With a flat salary cap for the next couple of seasons, many of the contending teams will not have the salary cap space to lure Pietrangelo, while the Penguins could have $13 million available this season and possibly more with trades. A short-term deal and the opportunity to play every night with a contender may be able to get the deal done.
The shorter length of the deal is also beneficial to Pietrangelo who can still land a big-money deal when the leagues’ finances are back in order and a larger salary cap is available. Barrie and Krug will be a nice backup plan at a lower salary offered to Pietrangelo if he decides to go elsewhere.
Free-agent wish list center with age and 2020 Salary
- Carl Soderberg- 34, $4,750,000
- Mikael Granlund – 28, $5,750,000
- Mikko Koivu – 37, $5,500,000
The ideal candidate for the third-line center position will likely come from a veteran who can be persuaded to come in on a short-term contract and play on a team that is ready to win now. Soderberg can play center and left-wing and is a player who can provide valuable minutes and scoring punch. In the last three seasons, he scored 16, 23, and 17 goals while only missing three games in that span.
Granlund has been a consistent point producer in the last four seasons posting 26, 21, 16 and 17-goal seasons while playing for the Minnesota Wild and Nashville Predators. Koivu would be a nice short-term option and is a pass-first center who would help many of the talented goal scorers on the current Penguins roster.
Revamp Coaching Voices, Philosophy and Attitude
Rutherford didn’t waste any time making changes following his end-of-season teleconference. The very next day three assistant coaches were fired. The truth is the Penguins have not been a Stanley Cup threat lately, winning just one playoff game in their last eight attempts. What was also troubling was watching a talented roster get healthy after losing 291-man games to injury and still play with little or no passion.
It will be interesting to see what assistants are hired to be part of Mike Sullivan’s coaching staff this coming season. One will likely be a former head coach who Rutherford will have waiting in the wings to take over should the team get off to a sluggish start or not play up to expectations. After all, that is how Sullivan became the coach before he took the team to back-to-back Stanley Cup championships in 2016 and 2017.
The number one priority for the new coaching staff will be to relight the fire and passion as the window of opportunity for the core of the team to win one more Cup closes for good. This can be done simply by changing the voice — or in this case, three voices — on Sullivan’s staff. These new voices will have several options to chose from in fixing a dismal power play that went 3-for-17 during the Qualifying Round series loss to Montreal.
There will also need to be a commitment to playing younger players more often in the lineup. Back in December when the Penguins were in a stretch going 7-0-2 at home, their lineup was filled with guys like Dominik Simon, Stefan Noesen, Dominik Kahun, Sam Lafferty, Chad Ruhwedel and Jussso Riikola as they defeated the defending Stanley Cup Champion St. Louis Blues 3-0.
Yet, as the veterans were recovering from injuries and younger players were sent to the minors or healthy scratches, Pittsburgh went on a 3-8 stretch at the end of the season, with the three victories coming against non-playoff qualifiers the New Jersey Devils, Buffalo Sabres, and Ottawa Senators. That end-of-season stretch was exactly how the club performed in the Qualifying Round, yet very few changes were made during the series.
The road to a championship is never easy, yet not many clubs have a core that includes Crosby, Malkin, and Letang to build around. Adding a top defenseman, and a third-line center to this core through free agency or trade will be important steps. The coaching staff will also need to supplement this core with an injection of youth and hunger if they want to have another shot at another Stanley Cup.
Rob Klein grew up in the suburbs of Detroit, Michigan playing pond hockey every winter, and watching Hockey Night in Canada on CBC every Saturday. Being able to finally watch his Red Wings hoist the Stanley Cup in 1997 was his finest NHL moment. As a fan of the NHL for over 40 years he has been able to follow many great teams and appreciate the history of this great game as well as the remarkable talent that is playing today.