After a few weeks of excitement in NHL free agency, the Pittsburgh Penguins still have a pair of restricted free agent skaters to re-sign: forward Zach Aston-Reese and defenseman Marcus Pettersson. At the moment, the team won’t be able to afford both with just $842,500 in available cap space.
Pittsburgh signed Brandon Tanev to a lengthy six-year deal this offseason so Aston-Reese may not be a priority. He’ll bring a physical edge to the Penguins’ bottom-six just as Aston-Reese did; Tanev racked up 278 hits last season while Aston-Reese totaled 138 in 43 games, good for a 263-hit pace over a full season.
The team may elect to re-sign Pettersson, who is expected to play some quality minutes as a second-pair blueliner this season, and let Aston-Reese walk or attempt to trade his rights. Still, even just fitting their Swedish defenseman into this tight cap situation will be a struggle. The Penguins will likely need to shed salary for some breathing room, and that could mean moving on from an impact NHL player.
5. Goalie Tristan Jarry
For now, it appears that general manager Jim Rutherford would prefer not to move Tristan Jarry, the incumbent starting netminder for AHL Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. He has one year left on his contract and provides depth behind NHL mainstays Matt Murray and Casey DeSmith. However, his deal is a one-way contract which could make things a bit murky.
For now, Rutherford believes he can sneak Jarry back to the AHL through waivers as most franchises have their goalie situations set after free agency. However, a few injuries in training camp or preseason could make that more difficult, causing Rutherford to rethink his plans.
The 24-year-old has 29 NHL games under his belt, posting a 2.84 goals-against average and .906 save percentage in the process. Those aren’t outstanding numbers by any stretch, but he’s proven to be serviceable as an NHL backup or short-term starter. Should he get traded, the team could package him with another name later on this list or get a late-round pick in return.
4. Defenseman Juuso Riikola
The Penguins defense may not be particularly great, but it is rather deep, even after sending Olli Maatta to the Chicago Blackhawks. For now, it looks like Chad Ruhwedel and Juuso Riikola will be the odd men out of the lineup on most nights, giving Pittsburgh some room to send Riikola elsewhere.
He’s on a one-way deal for this season before becoming a restricted free agent, so he could present some roster limitations similar to Jarry’s case. The 25-year-old found plenty of success in the Finnish Elite League before landing a deal with the Penguins. He notched 49 points in 118 games over his final two seasons overseas but appeared in just 37 games with Pittsburgh last season.
Riikola found some success with his inconsistent playing time, scoring a pair of goals with five points while averaging 16:41 of ice time in his 37 games. At present, he likely won’t be a top-four defenseman on any team, though he’s proven that he can be effective in a depth role. Like Jarry, Riikola could be moved for a late pick or in a package deal.
3. Forward Bryan Rust
The first real impact player on the Penguins that could be moved is Bryan Rust. As mentioned, the addition of Tanev, as well as Dominik Kahun and the possible re-signing of Aston-Reese, gives the Penguins a pretty deep group of wingers. Carrying a $3.5 million cap hit for the next three season, Rust could be a prime candidate to clear cap space.
The 27-year-old has been one of the more consistent Penguins forwards beyond the big names over the last two seasons. More impressively, he’s posted good numbers even without Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin. According to Natural Stat Trick, here are his possession metrics at five-on-five play from the last two seasons:
Note: TOI is total ice time, CF% is Corsi for percentage, and GF% is goals for percentage
- With Crosby: 915:24 TOI, 54.8 CF%, 56.8 GF%
- With Malkin: 331:58 TOI, 51.8 CF%, 48.5 GF%
- With neither: 627:43 TOI. 51.5 CF%, 50% GF%
The fact that Rust has proven his abilities with and without a superstar center by his side should make many teams interested in acquiring him. On top of scoring 46 goals and 101 points over the last three campaigns, the 5-foot-11 winger is a two-time Stanley Cup champion and already has 62 games of playoff experience under his belt.
2. Forward Nick Bjugstad
Acquired as part of a blockbuster trade with the Florida Panthers, Nick Bjugstad has established himself as the team’s third-line center. He scored nine goals and 14 points while laying down 82 hits in 32 games with the Penguins last season. The team has him locked up for another two seasons at $4.1 million per year.
At 6-foot-6, Bjugstad uses his large frame to play a strong two-way game, though he’s not overly productive in the offensive end. He’s scored just 96 goals and 205 points in 426 NHL contests and has just two 40-point campaigns. For a team looking to acquire a legitimate third-line center, Bjugstad is the guy.
Pittsburgh likely won’t want to move on from the 27-year-old, but the financial situation could call for drastic measures. The team has spent the last few seasons looking for quality center depth under Crosby and Malkin. However, the offseason acquisition of Alex Galchenyuk could make moving Bjugstad a possibility.
1. Forward Patric Hornqvist
Finally, in what would clear the most cap space, Patric Hornqvist could be a trade candidate in the coming weeks. He’s a legitimate top-six winger, but at 32 years old and a $5.3 million cap hit through the 2022-23 season, he could scare off some potential suitors, especially coming off a down season.
Hornqvist scored 18 goals and 39 points last season, his lowest in both categories since scoring four goals and 14 points in 24 games during the 2012-13 campaign. He was riddled with injuries for most of the season, including concussion and upper-body issues. Prior to last season, he had five consecutive campaigns of at least 20 goals and 40 points.
On top of the somewhat-pricey cap hit, the 32-year-old has a no-trade clause, meaning he could block any trade the Penguins may agree to with another club. This doesn’t mean Hornqvist couldn’t be enticed to waive his clause to play for a different franchise, but it’s certainly another roadblock in Pittsburgh trying to manage its financial situation.
While the Penguins would like to keep all of these players, the financial situation certainly isn’t ideal, likely forcing the team to make at least one move. It won’t be easy though, as Rutherford is still looking to put a competitive, playoff-ready roster on the ice every night.
Tyler Bowen is a University of South Florida graduate and lifelong hockey fan. Tyler covers the Pittsburgh Penguins for thehockeywriters.com. You can usually find him obsessing over his fantasy teams and looking for his next gambling tip.