It’s hard not to already be looking towards the 2020 NHL offseason. It’s been over a month since an official NHL game took place and there’s really no telling when the league will be back in action or if the 2019-20 season will even be completed.
While the Pittsburgh Penguins were gearing up for another Stanley Cup run led by Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, the team might already need to shift its focus to what’s set to be a critical offseason. Of course, every offseason can make or break a roster, but the summer of 2020 could set the course for the next several years of Penguins hockey.
Tristan Jarry vs. Matt Murray
Without a doubt, the most important task on the list will be committing to a goaltender. Both Tristan Jarry and Matt Murray will be restricted free agents, giving the Penguins some good leverage entering the offseason. They could attempt to sign both or, what seems to be the more likely scenario, hang on to one while shopping the other’s rights on the trade market. In that case, which one will stay in a black and gold sweater?
It’s no question that Jarry had the better 2019-20 campaign; he entered the season as Murray’s backup, starting just four of the Penguins’ first 22 games. He then took the starting job in late November before the two finally fell into a fairly routine tandem for the last two months of the season. Overall, Jarry’s stats were significantly better than Murray’s:
Jarry: 20-12-1, 2.43 goals-against average (GAA), .921 save percentage (SV%), 6.04 goals saved above average (GSAA)
Murray: 20-11-5, 2.87 GAA, .899 SV%, minus-12.07 GSAA
However, Murray has the pedigree and experience that Jarry lacks. Prior to this season, Jarry had just 29 NHL appearances under his belt while Murray has already led the Penguins to two Stanley Cup titles. However, since taking over as the franchise goalie after Marc-Andre Fleury went to the Vegas Golden Knights three seasons ago, the Ontario native has been wildly inconsistent and, for many stretches, hard to watch.
In a way, Jarry’s lack of experience may come in handy for the Penguins. While he’s certainly due for a raise from his $675,000 salary, the 24-year-old will likely come cheaper than Murray, who made $3.75 million this season. Jarry’s limited time in the NHL won’t be as much leverage in contract talks as Murray’s Stanley Cup experience.
In an ideal situation, the Penguins could re-sign both netminders on affordable, short-term deals and let them continue to battle for the bulk of the duties. However, with a capable Casey DeSmith waiting in the minors, it doesn’t make sense to pay more that’s what’s absolutely necessary in goal. It’s unclear how much trade value Murray may have left, but it seems like Jarry will be the best option for the team on the ice and on the cap sheet going forward.
Which Pending Free Agents Will Be Extended?
Aside from the two netminders, the Penguins have another handful of pending free agents this offseason, both restricted and unrestricted. The full list includes:
- Justin Schultz (UFA; $5.5M in 2019-20)
- Conor Sheary (UFA; $3M)
- Evan Rodrigues (RFA; $2M)
- Jared McCann (RFA; $1.25M)
- Juuso Riikola (RFA; $850,000)
- Anthony Angello (RFA; $833,750)
- Sam Lafferty (RFA; $767,500)
- Dominik Simon (RFA; $750,000)
- Patrick Marleau (UFA; $700,000)
The rumor mill was fairly silent all season regarding a potential extension for Justin Schultz. Combine that with Marcus Pettersson’s big contract extension and the signs point towards the 29-year-old blueliner finding a new home for next season. Meanwhile, Juuso Riikola should be an affordable depth defenseman.
Moving to the forwards, some tough decisions will need to be made. The Penguins acquired Conor Sheary and Evan Rodrigues at the trade deadline and neither got much time to prove their worth on the roster before the league’s shutdown. However, they both could end up as rentals as the Penguins should focus on arguably their most important pending free agent.
Since being acquired from the Florida Panthers in February of 2019, Jared McCann has been one of the Penguins’ most important and consistent contributors. He was a bargain at just $1.25 million, scoring 25 goals and 52 points in 98 games with the team. The 23-year-old is also incredibly versatile; he spent time all over the lineup due to injuries this season, including as a first-line winger and a second-line center. Retaining McCann will be vital to the team’s success over the next few seasons and he’s certainly due for a sizable raise.
As for some of the depth pieces, Dominik Simon, Anthony Angello, and Sam Lafferty should all be retained at fairly low costs and it wouldn’t be surprising if the Penguins let Angello walk after he suited up for just eight NHL games this season. The 40-year-old Patrick Marleau could retire or look to sign with a contender again next season, but he’ll most likely at least test the free agency market.
Will the Penguins Trade a Veteran to Clear Cap Space?
With several important pending free agents this offseason, the Penguins may need to clear shuffle some cap space out. The NHL salary cap was expected to jump between $3 to $7 million for next season, but with the league likely missing out on all its playoff revenue, the cap ceiling looks a bit murky. Assuming the cap doesn’t increase and instead stays at the current $81.5 million, the Penguins are looking at roughly $13 million in cap space before signing any of their free agents.
Last offseason, the Penguins shed salary by sending Olli Maatta to the Chicago Blackhawks and Phil Kessel to the Arizona Coyotes. In the 2018 offseason, it was Sheary and Matt Hunwick packing their bags for Buffalo to join the Sabres. In 2017, it was Fleury heading to Vegas in the expansion draft.
This offseason shouldn’t be any different. If the Penguins want to re-sign their important free agents and be at least somewhat active on the open market, some money is going to need to be cleared up. As was the case last offseason, the top candidate might be Patric Hornqvist.
The aging, injury-plagued winger scored 17 goals and 32 points in 52 games this season, missing 17 contests with lower-body injuries. He looked much better than he did during the 2018-19 season where he scored just 37 points in 69 games, which would likely increase his trade value. However, with a $5.3 million cap hit for three more seasons, the 33-year-old is a very risky contract to take on.
Hornqvist is still valuable to the Penguins; he’s a locker room leader, can play wing up-and-down the lineup, and plays a physical game that few can emulate. His willingness to constantly get under goalies’ skin and take center stage in nearly every scrum is vital to the team’s chemistry and performance. However, his struggles to stay on the ice consistently could force the Penguins to shop him around.
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Understandably, there may not be many suitors, especially if the Penguins aren’t willing to attach a draft pick or prospect for another team to eat the rest of the contract. It would be much more palatable for another NHL squad to acquire Nick Bjugstad, whose $4.1 million cap hit will come off the books when he enters free agency next season. Unfortunately, the Penguins would need to be willing to move him for next to nothing after he tallied just two points in 13 games this season.
It’s unclear when the NHL “offseason” will actually take place, but it’s going to be a big one for the Penguins. Teams rarely have to worry about choosing between a goalie tandem and re-signing or replacing both a top-four defenseman and key forward all at the same time. Because of that, the 2020-21 Penguins may get a pretty drastic makeover.
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.