The Pittsburgh Penguins had their season ripped out of their hands by Artemi Panarin and the New York Rangers in overtime on Sunday. The team battled all season long and overcame injury after injury, displaying a ‘next man up’ mentality throughout the entire regular season and into the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
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Unfortunately, there are now expected to be some major changes to the Penguins roster as the management duo of general manager Ron Hextall and president of hockey operations Brian Burke have some major decisions to make. Let’s take a look at three Penguins who aren’t expected back next season:
The top line was one of the best in the league this season and right-winger Bryan Rust was a huge part of the trio. He had wonderful chemistry with Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel, tallying 24 goals and 58 points in 60 games. Rust has hit 20 goals in each of the last three seasons, all coming with less than 60 games played. He’s developed from a pesky checking winger to a very serviceable top-six winger who can score. He also works his tail off each and every night.
Rust is a pending unrestricted free agent and the 30-year-old is expected to receive a ton of interest on the open market, especially from his hometown Detroit Red Wings. The Michigan native could provide the Red Wings with some experience, an offensive upgrade and a player with a winning pedigree that knows what it takes in this league to be successful.
The former third-round pick of the Penguins is coming off an almost point-a-game season where he made $3.5 million against the salary cap. A figure that’s likely to hit north of $5 million from teams on the open market, and not likely from the Penguins. While Burke and Hextall do have roughly $28 million to play with this summer, we’ve already seen them prioritize other areas throughout the season.
Now that the likes of Kris Letang, Rickard Rakell and Evgeni Malkin become a priority, it’s likely Rust is one of the odd men out come July 13 when free agency begins. To me, because Burke and Hextall sent a package to the Anaheim Ducks for Rakell at the trade deadline, they may feel more obligated to keep him around than Rust who was already in Pittsburgh when they arrived.
With the development of Michael Matheson this season, and management wanting to create salary-cap flexibility, look for defenseman Marcus Pettersson to be moved this offseason. The 26-year-old made wonderful strides in 2021-22 and even though he’s making $4.02 million on the salary cap, he holds some trade value for other teams.
Pettersson finished the regular season with 19 points in 72 games and chipped in two assists in seven Stanley Cup Playoff games against the Rangers. If management can find a suitor for the lanky defenseman, the Penguins would still have Matheson, John Marino, Brian Dumoulin, Chad Ruhwedel and Mark Friedman under contract for 2022-23, and it would provide an additional $4 million to use towards internal and external free agents.
Essentially, if management can move Pettersson and save money, they should have no problems keeping Letang, Malkin and one of Rust or Rakell in the fold for next season and beyond.
To me, it feels like the Penguins would rather have Evan Rodrigues back and Kasperi Kapanen re-signed than have Jason Zucker back next season. The veteran forward hasn’t been able to stay healthy since joining Pittsburgh via trade from the Minnesota Wild and when he’s been healthy enough to play, he hasn’t produced to expectations.
The 30-year-old has one more season left on his contract, carrying an average annual value of $5.5 million. He does have trade protection against 10 teams of his choice, so management will have some work to do to find a suitor among the others, but it is a task that should be doable.
In the 94 games Zucker has dressed for the Penguins in the past two and a half seasons, he’s only recorded 47 points. The salary and the production do not align here and management would be wise to make him available on the trade market, starting at the NHL Entry Draft. Again, if we come back to financial flexibility and other areas of concern, keeping him shouldn’t be a priority for the Penguins. Using his money in other areas should be the focus. ‘Zucks’ is from the west coast and the Los Angeles Kings, San Jose Sharks and Anaheim Ducks will all be looking for some fresh faces for their top-nine forwards next season. Keep an eye on the California trio as there could be a match there this summer.
Hextall and Burke have their biggest offseason to date since taking over for Jim Rutherford. Considering resources and external interest in some of their players, there’s zero chance everyone will be back. Management has to prioritize and rightfully so, leaving these three players mentioned as prime targets to be playing in another jersey next season.
Shane’s been a part of The Hockey Writers team since 2020, covering the Toronto Maple Leafs & Pittsburgh Penguins. A constant contributor, his versatile perspective on game results and everything off the ice produces diverse content. You can also find him on the Maple Leafs Lounge podcast with Peter Baracchini and Alex Hobson. Follow along on Twitter @ShugMcSween