Free agency began on July 13, and the two days since have brought massive change for many teams and players. Calgary Flames’ superstar Johnny Gaudreau rejected their offer and instead signed a long-term deal with the Columbus Blue Jackets. Claude Giroux chose to come home and inked a three-year contract with the Ottawa Senators. The Toronto Maple Leafs lost two fan favourites in goaltender Jack Campbell and forward Ilya Mikheyev to the Edmonton Oilers and Vancouver Canucks, respectively.
The Pittsburgh Penguins were mired in mystery just before free agency began. Two of their longest-tenured players, defenceman Kris Letang and forward Evgeni Malkin, remained unsigned. General manager Ron Hextall avoided big questions by signing Letang to a six-year, $36.6 million contract on the eve of the 2022 NHL Draft. He did the same with Malkin, inking the Russian to a four-year, $24.4 million contract, avoiding an era-defining transition and retaining two franchise legends. The core has been maintained for the future and Hextall has ensured each will likely retire as members of the Penguins. Despite these developments, the team has still kept the future as a priority, issuing qualifying offers and contract extensions to young players and top prospects.
Hextall Betting on Kapanen Once Again
Kasperi Kapanen is coming off the worst season of his career. Registering only 32 points (11 goals and 21 assists) in 79 games, he found himself dropping outside the Penguins’ top forward group by the time the season ended. Now a restricted free agent (RFA), he was tendered an $850,000 qualifying offer. For a player coming off a three-year deal with an average annual value (AAV) of $3.2 million, that is likely going to seem somewhat unfair, especially since 2021-22 was not a reflection of his best play.
The qualifying offer, though, did demonstrate that the Penguins remained interested in retaining Kapanen’s services. He has already signaled to the team that it wasn’t up to his standard and filed for salary arbitration. Hextall never wavered in his confidence, especially after speaking to Kapanen’s agent at the NHL Draft. Even though arbitration did bring his cost up slightly, he nevertheless signed him to a new deal, this time at two years and $6.4 million. Theoretically, this should provide a morale boost – and thus, a performance boost as well – for the Finn as Hextall has shown he believes that Kapanen can become the player the Penguins expected him to be when they selected him 22nd overall in 2014.
Letang Can Now Mentor Defencemen of the Future
Alongside Kapanen, the Penguins also extended a contract offer to Pierre-Olivier Joseph, their top defence prospect. On the day free agency opened, he was signed to a two-year, $1.65 million contract running through the 2023-24 season. His contract was no doubt deserved after he showed nothing but steady improvement since arriving as part of the Phil Kessel trade with the Arizona Coyotes in 2019. He spent the majority of last season in the American Hockey League with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, appearing in 61 games and tallying 33 points (10 goals, 23 assists). He got an extremely brief glimpse of NHL action, suiting up in four games and recording only two penalty minutes (From “Nouveau contrat pour Pierre-Olivier Joseph”, L’Express de Drummondville, 7/13/22).
Joseph’s re-signing, coupled with that of Letang, provides the Penguins with an excellent opportunity for his development. In locking down both players, Letang could serve as a mentor for Joseph as he continues his development, especially considering his contract is a purely one-way deal. Hextall is counting on Joseph to be a big part of the future, which is perhaps why he’s scheduled to make the same amount regardless of whether he plays in Pittsburgh or in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. He figures to be a big part of the team going forward and locking him down indicates that management is thinking ahead.
Prepare for Pickering
During this year’s draft, the Penguins selected Swift Current Broncos’ defenceman Owen Pickering with the 22nd pick, and promptly signed him to a three-year entry-level contract. The pick was immediately lauded by nearly every major hockey publication, with The Athletic‘s Jesse Marshall describing him as a more offensive-minded version of Brian Dumoulin. He’s a confident skater, which says a lot since he grew from 5-foot-7 in minor hockey to a rock-solid 6-foot-4 by last year. On top of the growth spurt, his offensive production exploded last season, going from a measly nine points in 2020-21 to 33 in 2021-22, all while leading an overall underwhelming Broncos team.
Although Pickering’s contract won’t kick in until he officially sheds his amateur status and turns professional, he has already shown glimpses of the player he could become. The Broncos weren’t and aren’t in the best situation performance-wise right now and he will benefit not only from a few more years in the Western Hockey League but also from being part of an organization known for solid coaching and general leadership. Given the right amount of time and supervision, he should develop into a truly solid part of the Penguins’ defence and a steady presence in their future lineup.
Although the majority of the free agent talk surrounded the futures of Letang and Malkin – and deservedly so – Hextall also got down to business and inked the players that will be carrying the crest of the black-and-gold in the foreseeable future.
Covering the Pittsburgh Penguins and other topics for The Hockey Writers. Also a big fan of the Chicago Cubs and progressive rock music.