Penguins Address Areas Of Need In Free Agency

When Kyle Dubas took over as president of hockey operations and interim-general manager (GM) last month, he had a tall task ahead of him as just weeks away was the draft and free agency. In free agency alone, the team faced many needs to be addressed, such as most of their bottom-six, upgrades at left defence, and a potential hole in net.

Related: Penguins Set Up for Success with Dubas’ Early Moves

Luckily, Dubas has been able to fix most of these issues by upgrading the forward depth, filling holes on the back end, adding a third goaltender, and re-signing starter Tristan Jarry to secure the crease.

New-Look Pittsburgh Penguins

The Penguins’ lineup in game 82 of last season looked like this:

Since that game, the team has lost Jason Zucker, Ryan Poehling, Josh Archibald, and Danton Heinen up front and both Brian Dumoulin and Dmitry Kulikov on the back end. They also have yet to sign Drew O’Connor who they sent a qualifying offer to before free agency began.

Although some names were undoubtedly tough to stomach, the group as a whole failed to supplement the team last season, especially offensively. The players that Dubas added in free agency and trades so far make the roster look much better on paper. Before the draft, he traded for Reilly Smith who seemingly replaces Jason Zucker at a lower cap hit and he only cost a third-round pick. In free agency, the team added Lars Eller, Matt Nieto, Noel Acciari, Radim Zohorna, Ryan Graves, Will Butcher, and Alex Nedeljkovic to further upgrade the depth.

Although these may not be the “sexy names” of the free agent class, Dubas was able to make clear upgrades. Eller for example, provides similar production to Ryan Poehling averaging 1.6 points per 60 minutes (P/60) at even strength over the past three seasons to the latter’s 1.1. However, he has been one of the league’s better bottom-six centres defensively and on the penalty kill for years while Poehling has not. Similarly, Nieto and Acciari are upgrades to Archibald and Heinen. 

Lars Eller Colorado Avalanche
Lars Eller, Colorado Avalanche (Photo by Michael Martin/NHLI via Getty Images)

On the back end, Graves fits a different role from Dumoulin. He may not be as much of a shutdown defender, but he is younger and should be able to mesh well in the top-four. Butcher is likely just a depth defenceman but could be an interesting player to keep an eye on. He went from scoring 44 points in 81 games as a rookie in 2017-18 to spending all of last season with the Texas Stars of the American Hockey League (AHL). If he can find his game in Pittsburgh, it could be a home run pickup but without much risk, as he signed a two-way deal at only $775,000.

In net, it remains to be seen what the team’s plans are for DeSmith and Nedeljkovic as they cost $1.8 million and $1.5 million against the cap respectively. Nedeljkovic is intriguing; as a rookie in 2020-21, he was third in Calder voting with a 15-5-3 record and a .932 save percentage (SV%) in 23 games for the Carolina Hurricanes. After that season he was traded to the Detroit Red Wings where he saw his play decline year-over-year. He played in 59 games the first season with a .901 SV% and just 15 games last season with a .895 SV%. If he can find his game again, he could be perfect insurance for the Penguins’ crease. 

Overall, the new Penguins management has shown a lot of promise by taking gambles on cheap roster players and finding much-needed upgrades to the team’s depth for a low cost. If the early moves on paper are any indication, the Penguins should have no problem making it back to the postseason in 2024.

All stats and information from Hockey Reference and CapFriendly.