By Dave Fryer
PART III PENGUINS OFF-SEASON GAME PLAN: FORWARDS
Now the real work needs to be done. Fixing this group will not be easy, but fortunately, plenty of options can be put on the table.
There should be little question that Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Patric Hornqvist will return. Malkin has the largest cap hit of $9.5 million, with 7 years left on that deal. Crosby takes up $8.7 million with a full 10 years left, and Hornqvist comes in at $4.25 million for the next 3 years. The Penguins must make a decision on Brandon Sutter who will be in the final year of a $3.3 million (AAV) deal.
David Perron: He has another year remaining on his contract at $3.812 AAV. That is big money for a player who faded down the stretch, but at 26 years of age, the potential is very much still there for him to score at least 20 goals. A third-line role with Sutter is also a possibility, building a stronger line similar to the days of Staal-Cooke-Kennedy.
Nick Spaling: He also carries a large cap hit at $2.2 million for one more season. He scored just 9 goals this year, struggles to create his own shot and will not fill the true need as a scoring winger. But unless he can be moved in a trade which will be difficult, the Penguins will have to accept the salary and hope for Spaling to continue his contributions to the penalty kill and in the Bottom 6.
TURN THE PAGE?
That leaves Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis as the remaining wingers still under contract. Both of their contracts have two years remaining but are highly questionable for next season. Kunitz is a $3.85 AAV hit, while Dupuis comes in at slightly less of $3.75 annually. Kunitz turns 36 in September, and Dupuis is already at that age. Dupuis obviously has medical issues and has only played in 55 games over the past two seasons, scoring 13 times. Kunitz is simply declining physically. Both players bring a lot to the team in the locker room, but their ages, cap hits, and physical concerns warrant consideration for buyouts. A buyout of Kunitz would cost $1.108 million next year, and Dupuis would hit the cap at $917,000. Combined with a Scuderi buyout, that would essentially reduce the Penguins cap by over $3.3 million. That is a tough amount to swallow, but it is still worthy of serious consideration. If the decision is made to keep both players, it would still be advisable to place them as 3rd liners and boost the top 2 lines with more productive wingers. Turning the page on Kunitz and Dupuis whether by a buyout or trade for draft picks would create needed cap space to make the roster younger and give the Penguins more wiggle room in cap space to attack the top-6.
LET THEM GO
Daniel Winnik ($1.3 AAV), Maxime Lapierre ($1.1), and Steve Downie ($1.0) are all unrestricted free agents but do not have a strong case for returning, though, the Penguins are open minded about retaining Winnik or Lapaierre. Winnik and Lapierre are both 30, and Downie is 28. Winnik failed to produce here, even though he was given plenty of opportunities. Lapierre had an admirable postseason but is easily replaceable by a younger and cheaper player with more upside in Oskar Sundqvist. Downie, despite his 14 goals, was far too undisciplined to be a positive net worth.
Craig Adams: The veteran is now 38 years old, and after several seasons of unsung work, failed to be in the lineup for much of the stretch run. His contract is up, likely putting him in a position to retire. He was only a $700,000 AAV, but won’t be back and similar money is better spent on a younger player who can develop into a 4th line role and remain here longer.
WAIT AND SEE
Blake Comeau: He was also just a $700k AAV and is now an unrestricted free agent. He should be the only UFA forward worth re-signing since he is only 29 and produced more than expected. That move would largely depend upon the decisions made with Kunitz and/or Dupuis, though. Otherwise, a third line of Sutter-Perron-Comeau would be strong.
Andrew Ebbett, the Penguins have interest in resigning Ebbett who Jim Rutherford specifically mentioned in his end of the season press conference as a player who could contribute in the NHL.
Bobby Farnham: A fan favorite, likely to be offered a two-way contract. Eligible for waivers.
Jayson Megna: He did not get much NHL time this season, as the current coaches do not think highly of his hockey sense. Megna is only 25 and is now a free agent (UFA VI) after scoring 26 goals in Wilkes Barre this season. If he is not going to be used by the NHL team, it really matters not what the Penguins choose to do with him. Will be eligible for waivers next fall.
THE BENNETT DILEMMA
Beau Bennett: The former first-round pick creates an interesting situation. He is only 23 and is a restricted free agent. He will not cost much more than the $900,000 AAV from his entry-level contract, but it is hard to devote any money – or a roster spot – to a player who has vastly under-performed and has spent considerable time on injured reserve. There is really not a spot on the team for Bennett if the Penguins expect to make substantial gains in key areas. The Penguins simply cannot afford to the wait-and-see approach with the former first-round pick any longer.
TOP-3 CONTENDERS FOR NHL SPOTS NEXT SEASON
1. Kasperi Kapanen: The first place to turn for help is easy. The first-round pick from the 2014 draft made a strong showing for himself last summer and gained more consideration for an NHL roster spot than initially expected. He may not be completely ready yet, but that is the kind of risk the team needs to be making. Kapanen comes with an AAV of just $925,000, as well.
2. Scott Wilson: He is a player Penguins management expects to make the NHL team eventually. But he is not going to fill the need on the top 2 lines next season, if ever. He could be a reasonable contributer in the Bottom 6. Wilson costs $655k against the cap and just turned 23.
3. Oskar Sundqvist: There is plenty of reason to believe he has a future with the Penguins, but he has yet to play a game in North America. He is naturally a center, but the Penguins know that his place in the NHL may come on the wing. His size would allow that to happen. Getting him to that spot may not happen immediately, though, but that needs to be a goal for the team over the next two seasons. The team needs to find other options for now, though, if they expect to right the ship and compete for a Cup next season.
Dominick Uher: Uher is a restricted free agent and only 22 years old. He is far shy of the solution to any of the Penguins’ problems, but he’s emerging up the organization depth chart as a 4th line depth option.
Guys like Bryan Rust and Conor Sheary provide the team with interesting depth options going into next season, notably Rust with his north-south game and speed he possesses. Sheary led the Wilkes Barre in scoring and is playing on an AHL contract. Has put himself in position to garner a two-way contract this summer.