The Pittsburgh Penguins put themselves in a bit of a hole once again with the signing of Brandon Tanev. As fast as they created some cap space with the Phil Kessel and Olli Maatta deals, the space disappeared. Currently, Pittsburgh has just under $1.6 million in cap space with a few restricted free agents left to sign. Basically, the Penguins again have virtually zero cap space.
Here are five changes they can make right now that can help – almost immediately.
First, ship out Jack Johnson by any means necessary
It has been talked about ad nauseum since the five-year deal occurred. Regardless, Pittsburgh has eight defensemen signed to contracts. Marcus Pettersson would be the ninth once the parties come to terms. Therefore, a player maybe two must be moved or buried in the minors. Johnson dragged down the numbers of just about every defenseman he was paired with last season.
Add in the fact that he still has four years left on that contract and the options are not so good. Pittsburgh would have to retain half or close to half the Johnson salary. Also, they would have to sweeten the pot – include a draft pick maybe a decent prospect or NHL ready player. At this juncture, the Penguins need to figure. They cannot carry all these defensemen like a few teams can. Also, they need to improve offensively and defensively.
Having Jack Johnson on the roster impedes those chances.
Second, find a way to sign Jake Gardiner
This is risky and controversial. Also, it would need to come with a few moves to free up cap space. However, Gardiner’s price appears to have come down over the past several days. Aside from the occasional blunders, the defenseman makes, he moves the puck well and is a good distributor in all phases.
His possession metrics are typically pretty good relative to team percentages (+1% last year and +2.5% career). If there is a way to get that AAV down to say $5 million, that may work under Pittsburgh’s cap. Yes, again this requires much maneuvering, but it is plausible. Puck movers are hard to find, and Gardiner can fill any holes on the power play as well.
Third, sign Matt Murray as soon as possible
Is Matt Murray your future, franchise goaltender? Mind you, the netminder has won two Stanley Cups in Pittsburgh. The longer the Penguins wait, the more the cost goes up. Murray makes $3.75 million and is still an RFA come 2020-21. The goaltender battled through a rough October and November which some doubted his job security. He had one of the best second halves among goalies and guided Pittsburgh into the playoffs.
Yes, they were swept by the New York Islanders, but the team was and still is a mess on the defensive end. Hopefully, a healthy Justin Schultz and an additional move or two rectifies those problems. Anyway, Murray showed he could thrive despite what was surrounding him. That is an excellent sign going forward for the 25-year old.
Fourth, what does one do with Patric Hornqvist, Nick Bjugstad, and Bryan Rust?
Here is the inherent problem with Pittsburgh. With so many “less than optimal” contracts, it becomes necessary to trim in other places. What if Jim Rutherford just takes his medicine and finds a way to move one of the above. Is he going to get good trade market value? That answer is no. In this climate, it is a buyer’s market.
Also, teams know that Pittsburgh is in cap purgatory not for just this year but next year too. The problem is by holding onto Jack Johnson and signing Tanev to a six-year contract, Pittsburgh placed themselves right back in a dilemma they could have climbed out of easier.
Now, Bjugstad ($4.1 million AAV – one year left) arguably is the most expendable. Some team could take a chance on him while others argue that Bryan Rust is a product of playing with Sidney Crosby. As for Patric Hornqvist, his health is risky due to concussion issues. It would be challenging to move a player on the other side of 30 with four years left on his deal.
Finally, inquire about Nikita Gusev and at least see the actual cost
It does seem every team in the league, except Vegas, could use Gusev’s services. However, Pittsburgh still needs a versatile middle-six forward with offensive upside to replace the one they just traded in Phil Kessel.
Maybe. Gusev is willing to take a little less than $4 million AAV to play for the Penguins. There would be a ton to work out as far as prospects, players, and compensation. However, Jim Rutherford needs to find that out. Possibly, he has done so, but it seems like that has not occurred. Again, past deals and decisions have come back to haunt Pittsburgh. Sadly, it feels like a broken record that somehow keeps playing.
At least openly inquiring about Gusev makes Rutherford and Pittsburgh appear like they are doing something positive. As it stands now, the Penguins are a bubble team and little else. That will not sit well with fans or upper management…period!
By Chris Wassel