Before NHL Free Agency began on July 13, the Pittsburgh Penguins were in an extremely precarious position. Long-time icons Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang were un-signed, and general manager Ron Hextall was faced with additional decisions on what to do with midseason acquisitions like Rickard Rakell. All of those concerns were quickly abated when Letang signed a a six-year, $36.6 million deal on July 7, and Malkin inked a four-year, $24.4 million contract five days later. Shortly after that, he extended a six-year, $30 million contract to 2021-22 deadline pickup Rakell.
The Penguins’ offseason moves have solidified the forward group and kept a veteran on defence, but they’ve also created a dangerous salary cap scenario, as they currently sit above the cap ceiling and have already explored trades to shed salary. However, the signings the team has made mean they sit on a wealth of trade chips themselves, and they could use this comparative power not only to expunge more salary but also to accrue future assets.
Last Season’s Surprises Now Expendable
In what seems to be a trend that follows the Penguins each and every season, they once again received outstanding performances from previously oft-overlooked players. This season, the spotlight shone brightest on forwards Evan Rodrigues and Danton Heinen, as the two exploded onto the scene in 2021-22.
Rodrigues nearly doubled his career high in goals, potting 19 and adding 24 assists for 43 points, nearly 20 more than his previous career high. His contract lapsed at the end of this past season, and he remained unsigned until Sept. 12 when the Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche scooped him up on a one-year, $2 million deal. Given that he waited nearly two months to receive a call from any team, it was clear that Hextall did not make him a priority but seemingly accepted losing Rodrigues’ services in favour of cap stability.
Heinen also enjoyed one of the best seasons of his career in 2021-22. He came in just behind Rodrigues on the team scoresheet, registering 18 goals and 15 assists for 33 points, all personal bests. He stepped up when some of the Penguins’ big names went down with injury, rising to the occasion to replace Malkin on the second line and eventually teaming up with him when he returned. His improvement was so great that he ended up with 15 even strength goals, good for third on the team behind Jake Guentzel and Sidney Crosby. As a result, his effort was rewarded with a one-year, $1 million contract.
Despite the personal success for Heinen this offseason, he does not project to fit into the Penguins’ plans for next season. According to Rob Rossi of The Athletic, the depth chart has notably omitted Heinen in favour of players with higher potential, as his projection sees Heinen replaced by recent trade acquisition Ryan Poehling and depth forward Radim Zahorna (from ‘Penguins’ 2022-23 Depth Chart Projection 1.0: New Players and Bottom-Six Mix,’ The Athletic, 21/07/2022). Should Heinen in fact not factor into Hextall’s grand design, his performance last season could attract considerable attention in the trade market if the price is right.
Penguins’ Depth Players Could Be Moved
Given the sheer amount of money handed out to so few players, it’s sometimes easy to forget some of the other players who arrived in black and gold this offseason. Hextall sought out and enticed some of the league’s grittier players; Josh Archibald arrived after spending the last three seasons with the Edmonton Oilers, and the aforementioned Poehling came from the Montréal Canadiens as part of a package deal that included defenceman Jeff Petry in exchange for Mike Matheson.
Archibald has yet to find regular playing time after being sidelined with COVID-19-related myocarditis, which limited him to only eight games last season. He tallied one assist in those eight games, but over his 243-game career split between the Oilers, Penguins, and Arizona Coyotes, he has demonstrated that he can be an asset to any team looking for a hard-nosed, grind-it-out player who dishes out hits like there’s no tomorrow. Given his lack of regular play recently, he could have a hard time making the roster out of camp and seems poised for a season in the American Hockey League, or be shipped off elsewhere. The San Jose Sharks seem like a good fit for him, as they aren’t a very deep forward group, despite having a decent top six. He’s currently only on a one-year, $900,000 deal, something the Sharks may be interested in as they navigate cap troubles of their own.
While the Penguins’ offseason can be quite accurately described as perilously successful, their sticky relationship with the salary cap means they’ll need to do some more manoeuvring to find the monetary sweet spot. Locking up their established stars long-term was a great first move, and the players who have been sacrificed at the proverbial altar may net them some decent returns in trades as well.
Covering the Pittsburgh Penguins and other topics for The Hockey Writers. Also a big fan of the Chicago Cubs and progressive rock music.