Penguins: 6 PTO Candidates to Consider for the 2023-24 Season

As the NHL offseason enters its final stretch, there’s still a pool of worthwhile free agents waiting to be discovered and turned into useful contributors, provided teams are willing to explore unconventional paths to mine some players of value via professional tryouts. This summer’s flat salary cap has led to an unexpected surplus of skilled players still seeking new homes for this season.

The Pittsburgh Penguins seem keen to continue to actively bolster their lineup, as they’re also still considering a free-agent option in Tomas Tatar (who we’ll assume will land a contract somewhere rather than a camp invite for the purposes of this article.) Looking ahead to September’s training camp, it’s worth examining potential players who are still available who might catch the team’s fancy and could step into key roles that remain unfilled. These players have the potential to address specific niche gaps in the lineup as the club aims to reclaim their status as a perennial playoff contender.

The #3 Center

Paul Stastny

Age: 37

Size: 6-foot-0, 193 pounds

Positions: Center/Left Wing

Last Team: Carolina Hurricanes

2022-23 Role: Fourth line center

2022-23 Stats: nine goals, 13 assists, 22 points, plus-4 in 73 games.

Still in search of that elusive Stanley Cup despite entering his 18th season in the league, Stastny and the Penguins’ “Cup or bust” approach could be the perfect pairing. He hit 20 goals and 20 assists as recently as last season with the Winnipeg Jets, reaffirming that his abilities are intact. His versatility, adept playmaking, and well-rounded game are ideal for the third-line centerman position. 

Paul Stastny Carolina Hurricanes
Paul Stastny, Carolina Hurricanes (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Stastny expertly employs his high hockey IQ and his play away from the puck to offset his advancing age. He isn’t shy in the fray and will go into the dirty areas as needed. Equally proficient on both sides of the puck, he can contribute on the power play and is ideally suited for a penalty-killing role. His faceoff win rate of 57.6 percent, despite his fourth-line minutes, ranks among the league’s top 50, just a shade behind Jeff Carter’s 59.4 percent. This makes him a viable option to step into the lineup to replace the struggling Carter. Improving the third-line pivot is especially crucial for the Penguins’ chances for success this season.

The Goal Scoring Winger

Nick Ritchie

Age: 27

Size: 6-foot-3, 236 pounds

Position: Left Wing

Last Team: Calgary Flames

2022-23 Role: Third line left wing

2022-23 Stats: 13 goals, 13 assists, minus-21 in 74 games

Ritchie primarily brings a scoring punch to the table, which has been a priority for the Penguins this summer. His career highs of 15 goals and 22 assists are impressive numbers for a bottom-six winger, and he offers an additional dimension as a proactive hitter. He ranked 18th in the league in that category in 2022-23, just ahead of New York Rangers’ bruiser Jacob Trouba.

With considerable size and a knack for playing net front, he’s yet to fully consolidate his skills into becoming a true power forward, but the tools are there. His uptick in hits in recent seasons indicates a willingness to evolve his game, too. Ritchie appears to be a prime candidate to thrive under head coach Mike Sullivan’s tutelage, which could enable him to finally fully meld his skills into a more well-rounded game.

The Heavyweight Enforcer

Austin Watson

Age: 31

Size: 6-foot-4, 204 pounds 

Position: Winger

Last Team: Ottawa Senators

2022-23 Role: Fourth line right wing

2022-23 Stats: nine goals, two assists, minus-7 in 75 games

The Penguins currently boast four of this generation’s most skilled players: Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, and Erik Karlsson. They also lack a single player who can provide protection for them, which brings us to Watson. Although the concept of enforcers is becoming antiquated, it might be a necessary evil for the team due to the exceptionally high risk of opposing teams employing a physical defense against Pittsburgh’s speed and finesse.

Austin Watson Ottawa Senators
Austin Watson, Ottawa Senators (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

However, Watson’s impact goes beyond that of a mere brawler. When called upon, he functions as a dependable defensive forward who excels on the penalty kill. He possesses respectable scoring ability for a fourth-liner, as he’s frequently hovered around the 10-goal mark. He has demonstrated his value in the playoffs, too, most notably during the 2017 Stanley Cup Final against the Penguins when he played 22 games and registered four goals and five assists as a member of the Nashville Predators. Still, make no mistake, he’s most known as a veteran pugilist with 59 fights in his nine-season career, so he’s very capable of providing protection to the team’s stars. 

The Energy Line Checker

Tyler Motte

Age: 28

Size: 5-foot-10, 192 pounds

Position: Winger/Center 

Last Team: New York Rangers

2022-23 Role: Third line left wing/fourth line right wing

2022-23 Stats: eight goals, 11 assists, plus-3 in 62 games

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Motte’s not a prolific point-producer, reaching a peak of just nine goals in 2018-19 and eight assists in 2021-22. However, his true value derives from his off-the-scoresheet contributions as an extremely effective role player. He excels in forechecking and shutdown scenarios and plays with a sustained high-energy tempo that wears opponents out. He also makes significant contributions on the penalty kill and has the versatility to play all three forward positions across both bottom lines. While his primary strength lies in his play without the puck, he also possesses deceptive offensive skills that can catch opposing teams off-guard. He’s also demonstrated ample ability in the playoffs, an important consideration for the Penguins.

The Forward Future

Max Comtois 

Age: 24

Size: 6-foot-2, 210 pounds

Position: Left wing

Last Team: Anaheim Ducks

2022-23 Role: Third line left wing

2022-23 Stats: nine goals, 10 assists, minus-20 in 64 games

The man who led the Anaheim Ducks in scoring during 2020-21 is still waiting on a new team for this season. Considering how much Pittsburgh’s bottom six languished in scoring purgatory for the better part of last season, his pure sniping style is especially enticing among the remaining PTO options. Despite being pegged for a bottom-six role, he has the ability to be mixed into the top six in emergency scenarios, thanks to his offensive instincts. 

Max Comtois Anaheim Ducks
Max Comtois, Anaheim Ducks (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

At just 24, he still has plenty of time left to grow his game, too. Comtois could specifically stand to improve on utilizing his size for better positioning and refining his power-play skills. However, it’s worth considering that the lack of talent in Anaheim has been a factor in holding back his development over the years. Likewise, there’s the question of whether he would even still be left languishing on the market if not for the flat-cap squeezing so many teams this summer. He is a young, raw talent with unique qualities like his finishing ability that would be worth taking a chance on to see what he can do under elite coaching and alongside some extremely high-skill players.

The Defensive Future

Simon Benoit

Age: 24  

Size: 6-foot-3, 203 pounds

Position: Left defense 

Last Team: Anaheim Ducks

2022-23 Role: Second-pair left defense 

2022-23 Stats: three goals, seven assists, minus-29 in 78 games. 

Another young, Quebec-born former Duck who’s still seeking a home is defenseman Simon Benoit. His addition would address two critical areas where the Penguins are lacking: physicality and young, genuine NHL-level prospect talent. He ranked in the top 25 for hits and top 60 for shots blocked during the 2022-23 season, showcasing the kind of valuable defensive contributions he can provide. His considerable stature allows him to do so effortlessly.

Simon Benoit Anaheim Ducks
Simon Benoit, Anaheim Ducks (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

These unique attributes fulfill specific needs for the Penguins in their futures as most of their D prospects are offensive-defensemen. Having completed his second full NHL season and doubled his stats from his rookie year, even while on a struggling team, Benoit’s proven that he’s on an upward trajectory and has only just begun to tap into his full potential. Now, he’s simply awaiting the right opportunity to prove himself.

Penguins Could Find Hidden Talent

The Penguins would be wise to actively explore this unconventional path to strengthen their roster through training camp invites as they attempt to return to playoff glory. This approach is always an inventive way to maximize the talent in a team’s system without committing to players before knowing how they fit in with the organization. It’s a savvy method to stay competitive by constantly improving their roster in the never-ending quest to best the rest of the NHL. This year’s crop of PTO options offers them plenty of outstanding options to attempt to do so.