No matter how the season ends for each team in the NHL, they all have a problem in common. They have players up for free agency, and decisions need to be made on how to handle each player.
As the 2021 NHL Playoffs grind on, the rest of the league, including the Pittsburgh Penguins, will begin to mull over what to do with their upcoming free agents. For the Penguins specifically, there could be some vast changes. With their third straight first-round defeat and the first offseason with Brian Burke and Ron Hextall in charge, those two might want to build a whole new team in their liking. Let’s run down each upcoming free agent and discuss what decision should be made with them. Do they re-sign or test the waters?
Originally a throw-in piece of the Patric Hornqvist for Mike Matheson trade, Colton Sceviour had a chance to be a useful depth piece with the Penguins. There were times throughout the season that he had an impact on games, but there were also times he was invisible on the ice. While he was commonly a healthy scratch and at one point waived to the taxi squad, head coach Mike Sullivan and the team did give him his fair share of games.
Sceviour played in 46 of the 56 games scheduled to record five goals and five assists for 10 points. Overall, though, he probably is not worth a new contract in Pittsburgh. It’s not that he wasn’t a useful asset, he just wasn’t playing when the team was fully healthy. On top of not being a part of a fully healthy lineup, he was outplayed by guys who have become more deserving of contracts.
Here is one of those players who deserves a deal over Sceviour. Frederick Gaudreau turned out to be a pleasant surprise for the Penguins. Originally signed to a one-year, two-way contract, he began the season on the taxi squad, was sent to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton for a stint, then ended on the third line with Jeff Carter. Gaudreau turned into a folk hero in Pittsburgh and earned the right to stay in the lineup when the team returned to health heading into the playoffs.
Gaudreau outperformed many players to earn his spot on the team. While it may not be in the starting lineup next year, he sure deserves another contract. A contract that puts him in the same sort of role he started the 2020-21 season in, a depth option that can fill-in in a pinch. His great play could not only push Sceviour out of town but another player who saw time all over the forward lineup.
For Evan Rodrigues, it’s just the unfortunate reality of being outplayed at the wrong time. When everyone got healthy, he wasn’t in the lineup. While he is a speedy fill-in option, there just isn’t room for him on the roster. And it might not just be NHL players forcing the issue this offseason.
Some of the Penguins’ top forward prospects could be on their way to the NHL pushing Rodrigues right out of the organization. Sam Poulin has been leaving great impressions with the team every time he practices or takes camp in front of Penguins’ management. This upcoming summer shouldn’t be any different as he keeps getting better.
Last year, the focus of Pittsburgh’s offseason was to make the team younger and faster. While Rodrigues is young and fast, guys like Poulin and Nathan Lagare could be NHL-bound. Ever since the Penguins acquired Rodrigues, it’s been a fight to play hockey and stay in the lineup. After a pandemic and getting healthy scratched, it’s time to let Rodrigues move on from Pittsburgh.
It’s the curious case of Cody Ceci, from a scorned cast off from the Toronto Maple Leafs to a stellar second-line defender in Pittsburgh. While Ceci exceeded everyone’s expectations and had a great season, you still have to tread lightly with him in contract talks. He has looked great on the ice, but the wheels could fall off if things turn sour.
The Penguins got good play out of Ceci because he was playing in the proper role. He’s not a top-line puck mover who is going to produce at a high level. He’s more well suited on the second line or even third who can chip in every now and then. Use him correctly, and he won’t bite you.
The other issue is the Penguins’ current defensive depth on the right side. There isn’t much there. Kris Letang up top, Ceci, followed by John Marino, Chad Ruhwedel and Mark Friedman. If the front office is confident Ruhwedel or Friedman will become full-time players next season, then you don’t have to bring back Ceci. It’s doubtful those two can handle that load, however, so you have to bring him back for another short-term deal.
What originally seemed like a panic signing as Jim Rutherford fled the team, was rather Patrik Allvin’s one and only move as the Penguins’ interim general manager. Either way, Yannick Weber should not be on this team. Due to a high number of injuries to the team’s defensemen, Weber played in two games and was not good in either of them.
Weber had no production and turned in a minus-3 rating while averaging a little over 11 minutes of ice-time. It’s not that he was a waste of a signing, the Penguins needed warm bodies on the blue line. Was there a better option on the market? For sure, there will be better options for depth defenders this upcoming offseason.
Note: On June 8, Weber signed a deal with ZSC Lions of the Swiss National League.
The unfortunate situation for the Penguins and Zach Aston-Reese is that he may become a casualty of the Expansion Draft. Aston-Reese is an immensely talented defensive forward who does deserve a new contract to stay in Pittsburgh as a piece of the fourth line, but everyone will have to wait and see who the Seattle Kraken decide to select in their upcoming Expansion Draft.
Aston-Reese not only remained one of the top defensive forwards in the league, but he also took a step in the right direction in point production. Sure, nine goals and six assists don’t seem super high for a forward who played in 45 games, but the goals are a career-high. Had there been a full 82-game slate, he would have crushed his career highs in every scoring category, so the trend is there.
“Why not protect him from Seattle?” Well, there’s just not enough protection to go around. There are quite a few talented forwards that are going to get protected over Aston-Reese, and one of them has been his linemate for the past few seasons.
Due to his first big boy contract, Teddy Blueger well deserves a lot of what he has coming for him this offseason. From a new contract with a pay raise to being protected during the Expansion Draft. Blueger is still one of the most important players on the Penguins and arguably the biggest name of the team’s free agents.
Not only is Blueger one of the team’s best penalty killers, but he also grew his offensive game. In 43 games played this season, he picked up seven goals and 15 assists for 22 points. Three of those goals came short-handed, proving not only can he score at even strength but also when the Pens are a man down.
Blueger provides the Penguins with important pieces to winning hockey games, from defense to offense. He should remain with the team for a few years with a brand new deal coming this offseason.
When the Penguins signed Mark Jankowski, they hoped he’d be able to turn his game around and return to his 30-point level. After scoring the first goal of the season and forming what looked like great chemistry with Brandon Tanev, it seemed like he could do it. But then came the third game of the season, which started a 21-game long scoreless streak.
Had it not been for a multitude of injuries to the forward core down the stretch, Jankowski wouldn’t have reached 45 games played this year. Players like Gaudreau and call-ups like Radim Zahorna were outplaying Jankowski.
The Penguins may have a new makeup when the puck drops on 2021-22, but the goal will remain the same: fighting for the franchise’s sixth Stanley Cup. The players above that should stay with the team will have a helping hand in reaching that goal. While this group of free agents is important, next offseason may see some fireworks as Letang, Evgeni Malkin, Bryan Rust, and Kasperi Kapanen are all entering the last year of their contracts.
Nick Horwat is a graduate of Point Park University and was born and raised in Pittsburgh. A lifelong Penguins fan that has been watching and going to games for as long as he can remember.