With the salary cap set to remain the same heading into next season, general managers across the NHL have been forced to make tough decisions on their free agents. The Pittsburgh Penguins are no exception to that, as the club had to trade restricted free agent (RFA) Matt Murray to the Ottawa Senators.
While other teams have also had to deal with their past mistakes of overpaying players, the Penguins have been fortunate. The team’s highest-paid players happen to be their top players. They also have other players who contribute offensively on cheap deals and are getting more out of them than expected.
3. Bryan Rust
During the 2019-20 season, the Penguins lost quite a few key players to injuries, including Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel. During their absence, Bryan Rust stepped up and provided the club with some scoring, which resulted in him posting career-highs in goals with 27 and points with 56.
Rust is in the third season of his four-year contract with an average annual value (AAV) of $3.5 million. He has proved to be a great asset in the Penguins’ top six and he will be a valuable asset heading into next season. With the departure of Patric Hornqvist, the Penguins will need a right-handed shooter on their first power-play unit. Rust will benefit a lot from Hornqvist’s departure and will likely be on the first unit power play along with Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and Guentzel.
2. Jake Guentzel
Guentzel signed a five-year contract with an AAV of $6 million in December 2018. The 2019-20 season was the first year of that contract, and Guentzel proved to be worth his contract.
The 2016-17 season was the American winger’s first season with the Penguins, and it concluded with him winning the Stanley Cup. Guentzel struggled in his second season, as his points per game played (P/GP) dipped from 0.83 in 2016-17 to 0.59 in 2017-18. His sophomore season struggles didn’t last as he stepped up in his third season. Guentzel posted a career-high of 40 goals and 76 points in 82 games, which gave him a P/GP of 0.93.
In Guentzel’s first season of his five-year contract, he continued to improve. He posted 20 goals and 43 points in 39 games and was on pace to top his career-high set in the previous season before suffering a shoulder injury. So far, Guentzel is proving to be an elite offensive player. The left-winger was on pace to score 40 goals in 82 games for the second season in a row and is becoming a point per game player.
The forward’s contract is a bargain, especially when comparing his contract to other players who produce at a similar rate. Had Guentzel played through the entire 69 games for the Penguins last season, he would’ve finished with 35 goals and 76 points. In comparison, Kyle Connor scored 38 goals and 73 points in 71 games and is currently on a seven-year deal with an AAV of $7.142 million. Therefore, Rutherford has signed Guentzel to a great deal.
1. Sidney Crosby
Crosby will be entering his eighth season under his 12-year contract with an AAV of $8.7 million, which started in the 2013-14 season. Every season, Crosby’s contract looks like a steal compared to what other superstars have been signed to. Since the 2013-14 season, Crosby is tied with Patrick Kane for the most points with 598 in 514 games. His 1.16 P/GP since 2013-14 ranks second behind Connor McDavid, and his 224 goals are the fourth-most.
Aside from his regular stats, Crosby has added some hardware over the past seven seasons. Since signing the contract, the Penguins won the Cup in back-to-back years, and both runs concluded with the captain winning the Conn Smythe Trophy. On top of that, he’s won the Art Ross Trophy, Hart Memorial Trophy, Ted Lindsay Award, and the Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy.
Crosby will be 33 entering next season and has not shown any sign of slowing down. In a season shortened by a core injury, Crosby scored 16 goals and 47 points in 41 games. As long as the captain is healthy, he will be the best player on the Penguins, and his $8.7 million cap hit will continue to be the best for the team.
Penguins Have a Few Great Contracts
Along with the three players mentioned, the Penguins have a few other players on great contracts as well, including Malkin, who has two seasons remaining on his contract with an AAV of $9.5 million. At this point in his career, it is hard to tell which version of the Russian centreman the Penguins will get. Malkin finished 2018-19 with 72 points in 68 games, but he had a bounce-back season, as he posted 74 points in 55 games.
Other than Malkin, the Penguins also have their young goalie Tristan Jarry signed for three seasons with an AAV of $3.5 million. His contract could also prove to be a steal if he performs similarly to last season. Jarry posted a .921 save percentage and 2.43 goals-against average, which led to an appearance at the 2020 NHL All-Star Game.
Sartaaj has been watching hockey for over 15 years and covers the Vancouver Canucks for The Hockey Writers.