Ron Hextall and Brian Burke took over as general manager and president of hockey operations of the Pittsburgh Penguins just under a year ago. In their first offseason in Pittsburgh, they had to deal with fans upset about an early playoff exit and an Expansion Draft. They weathered the storm and created what looks to be an even stronger team.
This upcoming 2022 offseason, however, is looking to be a little more eyebrow-raising, especially in terms of some in-house decisions that will have to be made. There’s a long list of upcoming unrestricted free agents, many of them integral to the success of the team.
Let’s take a look at some of the biggest names on the Penguins roster that are creeping up on the end of their contracts and decide what the team should do with them.
To be blunt and brief, Casey DeSmith has been awful this year and has overstayed his welcome as the Penguins’ backup goalie. In a position that historically has a short shelf life with NHL teams, DeSmith has somehow managed to be part of the Penguins’ organization for five years now. Hopefully, this is his last.
$1.25 million isn’t a lot of money on paper but it’s a problem when you can’t be confident in the player cashing that paycheck. The numbers leave so much to be desired, even for a backup; 3-3-1 in eight games played, with only a pair of quality starts. Sure, he picked up a shutout, but to hold a .888 save percentage and 3.44 goals-against average with a shutout is not good. Plain and simple, it’s time for the Penguins to move on from one of their longest-tenured backups in team history.
It’s more than likely DeSmith doesn’t make it to free agency with the Penguins. A trade for picks or prospects would work for Pittsburgh when a guy like Louis Domingue is already in the system. Domingue has a pedigree of play in the NHL and can be capable enough to serve as the team’s backup.
At this point, the Penguins would probably trade DeSmith for a bag of pucks. But if they decide to hold onto him for the remainder of the season, there shouldn’t be any chance of him re-signing with Pittsburgh.
How can someone not score a ton of points but still be one of the most important members of a team? Just ask Zach Aston-Reese, who isn’t exactly known for driving play in the offensive zone, but beloved by fans for his defensive play.
In a sport that gets driven by offense and flashy scoring more and more each day, Aston-Reese has settled into his home as one of, if not the league’s best at shutting down opposing offenses as a forward. Year after year, his underlying stats prove this point. He’s a phenomenal player when shutting down the other team but lacks a scoring touch that fans would love to see.
As of now, the Penguins could still use Aston-Reese. He’s a top penalty killer and continues to show sparks of a budding offensive touch. The scoring stats may not be reflected but with a few lucky bounces, he can be a contributor. The Penguins ought to keep him around, especially if he can stay near that $1.7 million cap hit.
This won’t take long. Chad Ruhwedel is one of the most consistent pieces on the Penguins blue line night after night, even if his spot in the lineup is never consistent. Since joining the Penguins organization in 2016, he has never shown any reason to let him walk. He’s gone from a “break glass in case of emergency” defender to a lineup regular this year and he’s earned his position over the years.
No bad words can be spoken about Ruhwedel and his play. He’s not going to score goals or pile up assists but he will be a steady face on the third defensive pairing, especially this year playing with an active Mike Matheson. Someone has to stay back and guard the blue line while Matheson attempts to drive offense, and Ruhwedel is the perfect player for that.
Ruhwedel’s contracts come one to two years at a time but that’s all they need to be. Keep re-singing him for a year at league minimum until that’s proven to be a bad idea. It’s been the formula for his success for six years now and there is yet to be a reason to change that.
Has anyone had a hotter start to 2022 than Bryan Rust? Legitimately no, no one in the league has. As a matter of fact, only Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux have had more points to start a calendar year in the Expansion Era. 11 points in three games is an extreme number reserved for only the best players in hockey and if this trend of great play continues, Rust has earned himself a nice new contract in Pittsburgh.
Prior to the start of 2022, thoughts on Rust staying in Pittsburgh began to sour. A vicious cycle of inconsistency and injuries planted the seeds of a Penguins team without the Notre Dame alum. Now, seeing this explosion of production, it’s hard to say goodbye to him.
Ideally, the Penguins find a way to keep Rust to a team-friendly deal and keep the dollar amount close to what he makes now. The league salary cap won’t be rising very much, so teams won’t be able to hand out big raises. Rust is a player approaching the wrong side of 30 and currently makes $3.5 million. If the Penguins can lock him up at $4-4.5 million, that would be a perfect deal.
It’s almost laughable watching Evan Rodrigues play this season; Laughable in the best way possible. An unreal pace has collected him a career-high 30 points (15-15) in 33 games played. To think the Penguins aren’t even halfway through the season. With so much time to add to the numbers, there is sure to be plenty of discussion regarding him this offseason.
The next contract for Rodrigues will be interesting. Turning from a depth forward that the Toronto Maple Leafs couldn’t even be bothered with to a top-six producer back with the Penguins, it’s been quite the ride. When the Leafs decided not to tender him a new contract, the Penguins stepped back in and signed him for a year at $1 million.
Given the offensive output through the first half of the year, Rodrigues’ $1 million looks like the heist of the century, but he has to sustain a level of consistency to earn a huge pay raise this offseason. Where the Penguins are lucky is that they may be able to re-sign him for a team-friendly deal. Next to no increase in salary cap space across the league will be an obstacle but a good low number deal is still possible. $2-3 million is where the Penguins should aim.
The heavy hitters are here. It wasn’t until recently that comments have been made by Kris Letang regarding his future but all signs point towards him remaining a Penguin. That’s exactly what the Penguins should be shooting for. The veteran defenseman can still drive play and be productive for upwards of 25 to 30 minutes a night, and he has yet to show signs of slowing down.
One thing that is certain in sports and in life is that Father Time catches up to everyone. Some people are able to fight him off for a while. Guys like Tom Brady and Chris Chelios come to mind right away but Letang has been doing pretty well at staying at the top of his game.
Regardless of critics’ opinions and pushing the age of 35, Letang should remain with the Penguins as long as he pleases. He’s earned that right and without any decline in play or production, keeping him around is in the team’s best interest. In 27 games this season, he has 26 points and is averaging just a hair under 26 minutes per night.
One issue that arises with a new Letang deal is the dollar amount. He already makes $7.25 million as the Penguins’ highest-paid defender, but where does that number go now? And for how many years? He’s in his 16th season and is no stranger to the injured reserve but he looks healthier than ever. A new contract may hurt the pockets of the Penguins but he will continue to be a part of their success.
Every player will tell the media that they are not focused on contract talks in the midst of a season. Not too many will outright say they are already a “rich guy.” Leave it to Evgeni Malkin to be light-hearted about his contract discussions. It’s a breath of fresh air when you consider just how difficult it might be to discuss his future. Geno is 35 years old, is recovering from extensive knee surgery, and has to wait until retirement to have wrist surgery, so how much playing time does he really have left?
If you ask Malkin, the answer is three to four more years. Surely, the Penguins would be willing to give him those years. The most ardent of critics have been calling for his trade out of Pittsburgh since at least 2014, and two Stanley Cups later, they are still begging for his departure. Odds are in the favor of Malkin, like Letang or Sidney Crosby, staying with Pittsburgh for life.
Malkin is the highest-paid player on the Penguins and for good reason. He’s a former MVP and still has the skill to be an elite player in the NHL. Does a new contract award him with a raise? Does he take a pay cut to fit in the slim salary cap? It’s hard to tell but one thing is for certain and that is Geno will continue to be a Pittsburgh Penguin.
It’s hard to put a new dollar amount on Malkin since he hasn’t yet played in the 2021-22 season but he should be back soon. Depending on how his performance of the final part of the season into the postseason goes, that will determine the price. Regardless, Malkin should, and will be back with the Penguins to close out his career.
Trying to make contract decisions is never easy from the outside and it can’t be any easier on the inside, either. It’s going to be a hard and interesting offseason for Hextall and company. This team has key guys at the end of their deals, a new ownership group overlooking everything, and an aging core that believes they can still get the job done. So far, they’ve shown they can, and who knows, maybe the Penguins head into this interesting offseason with an extra ring on their finger.
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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.