It should go without saying that the start of NHL’s free agency is one of the busiest days of the year. Star players find new homes with massive contracts, sometimes a high-profile trade flies in and steals some headlines. Regardless, free agency is one of the most-watched and talked about days every year in the hockey world. Oftentimes the Pittsburgh Penguins are seen in the thick of the news.
For Pittsburgh, the opening day of free agency has recently meant a big-time change has happened. There was Phil Kessel joining in 2015 and the signing of fan-favorite Brandon Tanev in 2019. Both of those acquisitions came with Jim Rutherford serving as the Penguins general manager. Now, Ron Hextall is manning the ship and there has already been a noticeable difference.
Hextall and the new Penguins regime have taken a different approach to free agency. For Pittsburgh, the 2021 free agency period has shown great focus on depth signings, especially at the forward positions.
Let’s go over each new addition the Penguins made over the first couple of days of free agency and see what they bring to the table.
Ladies and gentlemen, he’s back! After a year with the Calgary Flames, Dominik Simon has re-signed with the Penguins with a one-year, $750,000 contract. The agreement is a two-way deal, meaning if things aren’t working out with him in the NHL, the Penguins can punt him to the minors with no issue. The two-way portion of the deal is important since his spot in the lineup isn’t exactly certain yet.
To say Simon played a season in Calgary is a little far from the truth as he spent most of the season with the Flames taxi squad. In the 11 games he did play, he failed to score a point and only managed four shots. That’s obviously not good at all, but Pens fans know he is better than that.
Previously in Pittsburgh, Simon was known for playing alongside Sidney Crosby as a top-line winger. The issue there is that Simon is all too often incapable of scoring. Maybe he turns it around and finds the back of the net more with his second chance in black and gold, but for now, don’t expect to see him in the top-six.
Right off the bat, Pens fans should be excited about Brock McGinn. He’s the one who scored a double-overtime game-winning goal to knock the Washington Capitals out of the playoffs in 2019. Beyond a clutch postseason goal, Hextall and the Penguins see great potential with McGinn in Pittsburgh. They signed him to a four-year deal worth $2.75 million per year.
Early reports look at McGinn as Brandon Tanev’s replacement, and that’s a fair assessment. Both bottom-six role players, both don’t score at a super high level, and both aren’t afraid to use their body. In 345 career games with the Carolina Hurricanes, McGinn has posted 51 goals and 55 assists for 106 points. Add on the fact that he has multiple seasons where he finished with 137 hits.
Sure, on paper, McGinn seems like a younger and cheaper Tanev replacement, but McGinn has more upside. The cap hit is lower, there’s no clause involved, and he should be another solid penalty killer for the Penguins. He’s a player worth getting excited over, and he will be an entertaining role player in Pittsburgh.
This was a signing made out of necessity, the necessity to revamp the organization’s goalie depth. Emil Larmi took his talents back to his home country of Finland, and Maxime Lagace, after playing in one game and recording a shutout, was signed by the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Penguins system was left with only Alex D’Orio in net below the NHL level. This is where Filip Lindberg steps in.
Lindberg signed with the Penguins with a two-year entry-level contract and is expected to report to the American Hockey League (AHL) and the Wilkes-Barrie/Scranton Penguins to start his tenure in the pros. He is coming off four seasons with UMass-Amherst, where he put up a career record of 39-11-10 in the NCAA. His college career ended on a high note as he backstopped the MInutemen to a shutout victory to win the 2021 NCAA National Championship. Appropriately, the Frozen Four was played at PPG Paints Arena.
It may not be the big splash goalie singing fans have been hoping for, but that may never come. Hextall has said on record multiple times that Tristan Jarry and Casey DeSmith will be with the Penguins for the 2021-22 season. Lindberg, however, does help add to a position of need for the short and possibly long term. He is only 22-years-old and has the chance to blossom into an NHL-caliber goalie in the Penguins’ system.
Another depth signing for a guy with NHL experience to speak of but will have to wait his turn in line to crack the Penguins roster. Taylor Fedun signed with Pittsburgh on a one-year, two-way deal worth $750,000. Fedun didn’t play in an NHL game last year, as he spent most of his 2020-21 season on the Dallas Stars taxi squad.
Over 127 career games played in the NHL, Fedun has racked up eight goals and 27 assists for 35 points. Again, not a needle mover or headline grabber, but a player that will be a good addition to the AHL team and a possible call up if the injury bug comes back to Pittsburgh.
Another player who saw plenty of time on the taxi squad in 2020-21, Michael Chaput, managed to play in 13 games without recording a point. A former captain of the Tuscon Roadrunners of the AHL, the Penguins signed him to a one-year, two-way contract worth $750,000.
What does Chaput bring to the Penguins? A new veteran presence for the AHL and a Joseph Blandisi type for the NHL if called upon. A stout 6-foot-2, 199-pound center who won’t score much but can be a big body on the ice.
Now there’s a signing that will catch some attention. The latest and maybe the most interesting signing the Penguins have made, Danton Heinen, was picked up for one year at $1.1 million. As a bonus, he will be a restricted free agent at the end of the season.
Heinen played the 2020-21 season with the Anaheim Ducks scoring 14 points (7-7—14) in 43 games. Figure in that the Ducks weren’t exactly a great team who scored a lot last year and the numbers look a little better. Look at his tenure with the Boston Bruins to better grasp the production he can give. During his time in Boston, he played in 220 career games, scored 34 goals, and picked up 69 assists for 103 points.
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What makes the signing so interesting is how Heinen has already been labeled as a replacement for Jared McCann. As exciting as this would be, Heinen isn’t that kind of goal scorer. Maybe he hits another level in Pittsburgh, but this files more under a trial signing. A player trying to revert to a previous form, Heinen seems more like a Mark Jankowski with higher upsides.
Both the NHL and AHL Penguins picked up some much-needed offensive help, and free agency only started on Wednesday. Aside from Lindberg, every signing made by Hextall are skaters with NHL experience and can return at any point in a bottom-six role.
When the Penguins get healthy and playing to the top of their ability, they have one of the strongest top-sixes in the league. Adding depth guys like McGinn and Heinen for the NHL roster will be a great benefit. Skaters like Fedun and Chaput may not start with the NHL Penguins, but they can be useful in a pinch.
Nick Horwat is a graduate of Point Park University and was born and raised in Pittsburgh. A lifelong Penguins fan that has been watching and going to games for as long as he can remember.