The Pittsburgh Penguins have already answered, responded to, and addressed most of the rumours that surfaced ahead of the NHL Free Agency period. Evgeni Malkin was re-signed to a surprising four-year, $24.4 million contract the day before it began, and Kris Letang’s future was ironed out on the eve of the NHL Draft. General manager (GM) Ron Hextall even started planning for the aftertimes – that is to say, a foreseeable future where Malkin, Letang, and captain Sidney Crosby are nothing but fond memories – by handing out deals to top prospects Pierre-Olivier Joseph and Owen Pickering as well as young stud Kasperi Kapanen.
Hextall also got down to business by planning for what the bottom six of the lineup will look like, as he re-signed forward Danton Heinen to a one-year deal worth $1 million. Hextall won the day with this deal, as Heinen returns after his best season, but for less money than the deal he was signed to last season.
Heinen’s New Contract a Bargain for Penguins
Heinen enjoyed one of his best seasons in 2021-22, his first in Pittsburgh, as the 27-year-old scored a career-high 18 goals and 15 assists for 33 points. He added to his goal total in the playoffs against the New York Rangers with three more, including the game-winning goal in Game 4. He also finished third on the team in even-strength goals last season, trailing only Jake Guentzel and Crosby, as he’s shown that he can be slotted virtually anywhere in the Penguins’ lineup. He demonstrated that ability last season, filling in for Jason Zucker on the second line when the latter went down with an injury (From “Penguins Bring Back Danton Heinen, Sign Winger to 1-Year, $1 Million Contract”, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. 28/07/2022).
Before re-signing with the Penguins, Heinen was a hot commodity. Other teams had eyes on him and were clamouring for his services ever since it was announced that he didn’t receive an initial qualifying offer. Toronto Maple Leafs pundits even had him pegged as a Calle Jarnkrok clone and a potential replacement for Jason Spezza, Colin Blackwell, and Ilya Mikheyev on the penalty kill. Multiple teams also made him more lucrative offers, including the Winnipeg Jets; still, Hextall was able to ink him at an extreme bargain.
Heinen’s Decision to Return Speaks to Penguins’ Team Culture
Although his name swirled around the rumour mill until his contract was signed, Heinen never really indicated he intended to sign anywhere else. His willingness to return for less money than he would’ve received elsewhere indicates that the Penguins are a desirable destination for pending free agents. The team has crafted a reputation as a balanced and fair place for players, as well as a haven for younger players wanting to learn from some of the best players of all time.
After all, the fact that the Penguins have won three Stanley Cups in the Crosby-Malkin-Letang era and two since head coach Mike Sullivan’s hiring screams organizational stability and attracts free agents like a magnet.
Sullivan Knows Where to Put Heinen
Although highly unlikely given the fact that Heinen willingly took a pay cut to return to the Penguins, Hextall could ultimately use him as an extremely attractive trade chip in the future. He’s already proven he’s an NHL-calibre forward, and his potential inclusion as part of any deal could net the Penguins an excellent return. Now, though, the Penguins have to figure out where exactly to put him in the lineup. Sullivan knows where he’d fit best, but Heinen has shown he’s capable of playing in both the top six and the bottom six. Having said that, he will likely slot in on the third line with Jeff Carter and Kapanen to start the 2022-23 season.
If that is indeed the place Heinen goes, it would give the Penguins one of the best third lines in all of hockey, one capable of significantly contributing on offence (especially if Kapanen irons out his struggles) and making them arguably the most well-rounded team in the NHL, right up there with the defending champion Colorado Avalanche. Hextall should be counting his blessings, as not only was he able to retain a highly sought-after player, but he also managed to do it at a profit. Heinen’s versatility will allow for increased stability in the bottom six forward group as well as provide a much-needed boost to an already well-rounded offence.