Pittsburgh Penguins fans should feel more relaxed at the start of NHL free agency than Alex Ovechkin after a long day partying with the Stanley Cup.
OK, maybe not that relaxed.
But in all seriousness, I count three significant reasons why the Pittsburgh faithful should feel pretty good about their chances during the inevitable frenzy that is July 1 in the hockey world.
General manager Jim Rutherford is arguably the best in the league at his craft. He picked up the remnants of a failed dynasty created by Ray Shero and produced two Stanley Cup-winning teams. Nearly every decision Rutherford makes reinforces his greatness, assuming that you can get past the Jack Johnson rumors.
The Penguins have a committed ownership group that will spend whatever is necessary to make the team successful. This is more than can be said about another professional franchise in town, but that’s another conversation. Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle recognize that they have an opportunity with the current core of the team, and will give Rutherford the green light to go all out for that next championship run.
So Drew Doughty $11 million AAV more than three million higher than this year’s Norris winner Victor Hedman ($7.875 million AAV through 2024-25). #TBLightning. Not that Doughty isn’t worth it, but Hedman may be bargain w Doughty, OEL and whatever Karlsson ends up with. https://t.co/SQnc4ykEAm
— Joe Smith (@JoeSmithTB) June 29, 2018
Looking at the Drew Doughty contract with the Los Angeles Kings at an average annual value (AAV) of $11 million, and the huge contract that John Tavares is about to get, Penguins fans should appreciate the reasonable contracts that Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are signed to. The two superstars understood when they agreed to their deals that if they wanted the team to be successful, they needed to allow the club to have some financial wiggle room. Yes, they did leave money on the table, but they have some irreplaceable hardware to make up for it.
These things alone have made the Penguins one of the most successful franchises in professional sports, and allow me to make these bold predictions for July 1 and beyond.
Jack Johnson Link to Penguins May Not Be What We Think
Panic and pandemonium in Pittsburgh!
I have never seen a rumor create such chaos among a fan base as Jack Johnson being tied to the Penguins. Recently, the rumblings of a five-year deal between the two parties have circulated and were presented as fact. This is a problem as no team officials, agent, or anyone directly linked to the situation has said anything publicly, yet people are freaking out in unbelievable fashion.
Where there is smoke there is fire, and I believe that something is going on. But five years for the 31-year old seems excessive, so I wouldn’t count on that number or the price of $3 million-$3.5 million associated with the rumor. It is likely that he does sign with Pittsburgh, but I would expect the numbers to be a bit different than what is being talked about.
Darren Dreger reported on TSN 690 radio that there is no agreement between the two sides, but that Johnson is a primary target for the Penguins. So all the drama may be for naught. I would tend to believe all of the respected media members reporting on the situation, but until there is a signature on the contract, we don’t truly know what is going to take place.
The analytics do not suggest that this would be a good signing, but what happens if he comes to Pittsburgh and is actually good? Gasp!
Pittsburgh Hockey Now’s Dan Kingerski recently wrote that Johnson is the right fit for the Penguins, showing that a potential signing isn’t all doom and gloom.
Let’s start with the skill set. Johnson, 31, is a great skater, he is physical, he blocks shots and has good offensive upside. He dished 101 hits and blocked 135 shots last year in 77 games, despite a down year. Johnson’s career-best hit total is 180, and his blocked shot total was just one off a career high. The Penguins have a desperate need for a little bit of sandpaper on their blueline. Johnson is that guy.
Rutherford Is Not Done Trading
The money that Rutherford gained by trading Conor Sheary and Matt Hunwick is likely earmarked for a specific player like Johnson. But it appears that the Penguins have more targets in mind during free agency than just the Blue Jacket’s defender. If the club plans on bringing in more players, they need more free money to make that happen.
Phil Kessel, Carl Hagelin, Kris Letang, and many others have been brought up in trade discussions. ‘GMJR’ was active last week with the trade to Buffalo and re-signing Bryan Rust, Riley Sheahan, Daniel Sprong, and Dominik Simon, but all of those feel like he is just warming up.
Recently, Jimmy Murphy tweeted that the Penguins were working on a big “hockey trade” to gain “scoring up front”. What exactly that means is anyone’s guess, but from a blockbuster deal to a series of depth moves, I wouldn’t put anything past Rutherford’s ability to make something out of nothing.
Late last season the Penguins’ lineup looked something like this, with obvious variables being Sheary.
If Pittsburgh is to be actively adding balance and depth to their roster, something has to change. As you can see, with the exception of Chad Ruhwedel, all players are under contract with Jamie Oleksiak’s deal likely coming soon. I still think that Hagelin or Kessel get moved soon, with Hagelin being the most likely to go.
Johnson will probably replace Ruhwedel, and the organization expects more out of Sprong, so he would move up the roster creating a spot in the bottom-six. If a trade does not happen the Penguins have a roster spot for a defenseman, and that’s it. I would be very surprised if Rutherford didn’t have something unexpected working behind the scenes.
Penguins’ Roster May Be Set on July 2
As you can see from above there isn’t much roster flexibility as of yet. But there are several names that have been rumored to be talking with the Penguins.
I have long endorsed Michael Grabner as a player that the Penguins should target, and in recent days he has been linked to Pittsburgh as a free-agent option. His speed makes him a natural fit for coach Mike Sullivan’s system, but the apparently large interest from around the league may take him out of Pittsburgh’s price range.
On Thursday the Post-Gazette’s Jason Mackey noted that the Penguins are not likely done dealing, and Grabner was a target that they have coveted for some time.
The Penguins have met with Grabner, an industry source confirmed to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Thursday, and they remain very much interested in his services. (They also tried to land Grabner before the most recent trade deadline.)
Everyone would love the feel-good story if Chris Kunitz came back to his old stomping grounds, and a few days ago it seemed like a natural fit. But it appears that he is receiving greater interest than expected which could lead to more money and a larger role elsewhere preventing a reunion. It still remains a possibility, but not as likely as it was a week ago.
I have also mentioned Calvin de Haan as a possibility, but the idea of John Moore in black and gold seems like a more appealing option and an alternative to Johnson. Anthony Duclair is also a possibility if Kunitz does not work out, or maybe even if he does.
Realistically, once the Penguins add another defender the roster could be set for opening night. Much depends on how the team expects Sprong, Aston-Reese, and Simon to perform. The season very well could start with the lineup looking nearly identical to the chart above.
Just for fun, here is a chart of how I’d like to see the line combinations after the dust settles.
|KUNITZ / DUCLAIR||SHEAHAN||SPRONG|
|OLEKSIAK||MOORE / DE HAAN|
There are so many variables in play that it’s impossible to get a handle on probable outcomes. In all likelihood, the Penguins sign Johnson for the rumored years and dollars, and then make a minor depth move or two. Then again, Rutherford could trade for Jeff Skinner and Erik Karlsson.
Right now I’d love to be a fly on the wall in the Penguins’ executive offices. This really is a fun time of year, isn’t it?
Until next time.
Greg is a Pittsburgh Penguins writer for ‘The Hockey Writers’.
He is a Pittsburgh area native who has written for multiple Penguins news and opinion sites. In addition to hockey writing, he is also an experienced YouTube creator.
Greg started with THW in 2015 as a Blue Jackets writer, and spent time as a Fantasy Hockey analyst.