Answering the Penguins’ Biggest Offseason Questions

It’s no secret that the Pittsburgh Penguins’ 2018-19 campaign didn’t live up to expectations. A team that struggled to get momentum rolling for most of the regular season, many of the Penguins’ fatal flaws were exposed during their 4-0 series loss to the New York Islanders.

Pittsburgh has a lot of decisions to make this offseason but not much salary cap to work with. While the team has plenty of options to tinker with, the only thing for certain is that the roster will be shaken up before the 2019-20 season gets underway.

Which Defenseman Is on the Move?

Now that a week has passed since the Islanders completed the sweep in Game 4, Pittsburgh’s front office has had some time to reflect and start creating a plan for the offseason. A key part of that plan, according to general manager Jim Rutherford, is to move one of the team’s many defensemen.

“But it will be difficult to keep all of our defensemen and keep them happy. I’m sure with the amount of teams who are looking for defensemen, we’ll have to move at least one.”

(from “Penguins GM Jim Rutherford: Trade involving defenseman is likely this summer” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette – 4/23/19)

It’s probably a safe bet that longtime Penguin Kris Letang won’t be on the move this summer. When healthy, he still performs at a near-elite level and has been the anchor on Pittsburgh’s blue line for most of his career. Despite missing 17 regular-season games, the 31-year-old tied his career high of 16 goals along with 56 points and a plus-6.8 relative Corsi percentage.

Penguins Defenseman Kris Letang
As the leader of Pittsburgh’s blue line, Kris Letang should be off-limits in trade talks this offseason (Photo by Jeanine Leech/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Letang’s usual partner, Brian Dumoulin, will likely stay, as well. Dumoulin is coming off a career-high 23-point campaign and both members of the top defensive pair are signed for several seasons. After those two, most of the remaining defensemen should be available, with Olli Maatta being the most likely trade candidate.

Maatta is making just under $4.1 million per season through the 2021-22 campaign. He scored just 14 points in 60 games this season with a minus-4.3 relative Corsi percentage. The oft-injured Finn’s trade value has steadily gone down for most of his career after his strong 2013-14 rookie season when he finished fifth in Calder Trophy voting.

Trading Maatta will be easy; he’ll turn 25 in August and is under team control for another three seasons. Defensemen are always a hot commodity on the trade market, but it’s hard to pinpoint what he’ll bring back in return. The Penguins will almost certainly want more in return than most teams will be willing to give up. Pittsburgh may have to settle for a deal that doesn’t look like a win on paper to get rid of his contract.

Penguins defenseman Olli Maatta
Olli Maatta is young and has several years under team control, but is it enough for teams to look past his injury history and declining play? (Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

Assuming Maatta is on the move, it will clear enough cap space to re-sign restricted free agent blueliner Marcus Pettersson, giving the Penguins six full-time defensemen under contract. Therefore, the team would likely search the trade market for picks or a winger on a cheap contract.

The New Jersey Devils could make an interesting trade partner. They have plenty of cap space this offseason and could definitely stand to bulk up the blue line. With several young forward prospects coming up through the system, plus the top pick in this year’s NHL Entry Draft, would they be willing to move Blake Coleman? The 27-year-old has another two seasons under contract with a team-friendly $1.8 million cap hit and can play anywhere in the lineup, making him a perfect target for the Penguins.

How Will the Penguins Handle the Draft & Free Agency?

For the first time since the 2014 NHL Entry Draft, it looks like the Penguins are going to be active in the first round. They’ve done fairly well despite not having many high-end selections, but it’s imperative that they start drafting more higher-rated prospects to prepare for the future. Fortunately, 2019 appears to be a pretty deep draft class with plenty of options later in the first round. Whoever Pittsburgh lands with the 22nd-overall pick will immediately become one of the top prospects within the organization.

Pittsburgh also holds the Buffalo Sabres’ fourth-round pick, the team’s own picks in the fifth and seventh rounds, and a seventh-round selection from the Vegas Golden Knights. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Pittsburgh package some combination of those picks or 2020 picks to move back into the second or third round if there’s a prospect the team likes, similar to what the team did during last year’s draft to acquire Filip Hallander.

As mentioned, the Penguins don’t have much money to play with this offseason. Along with Pettersson, forwards Zach Aston-Reese and Teddy Blueger are restricted free agents. Moving Maatta for picks or a cheap contract will likely open enough money to sign that trio but won’t leave much to acquire new talent.

Pittsburgh Penguins Erik Gudbranson
If the Penguins can find the perfect suitor, trading Erik Gudbranson will give them a chance to make a splash in free agency (Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

Between Jack Johnson and Erik Gudbranson, a whopping $7.25 million in each of the next two seasons in tied up. Gudbranson was actually a solid contributor after acquiring him from the Vancouver Canucks at the trade deadline. He posted a plus-seven rating and plus-5.5 relative Corsi percentage in 19 games with the Penguins. That late-season turnaround could be enough to convince a team to take on his contract, giving Pittsburgh much more room to work with.

Should the Penguins clear up that money, the team will be in need of a winger (preferably the left side) and likely another depth blueliner. There are several unrestricted wingers that Pittsburgh would love to have, including Micheal Ferland, Wayne Simmonds, and Mats Zuccarello.

Even if the Penguins create enough cap space to make moves, they still need to be looking ahead to the 2020 offseason. Next offseason Justin Schultz is an unrestricted free agent, while both Jared McCann and Matt Murray will be restricted free agents. All three of those players are vital to this roster and likely stand to get pay raises from their current contracts.

While this offseason will be pivotal to the Penguins’ future and ability to make a Stanley Cup run next season, the team likely won’t have the room to make too many moves. At least one defenseman will be traded and some exciting new talent will be added to the organization. Pittsburgh would love to add some NHL-level talent via free agency, but can Rutherford work his magic to fix the cap nightmare?