PART II: PITTSBURGH PENGUINS OFF-SEASON GAME PLAN
By Dave Fryer, Contributor to InsidePittsburghSports.com
Marc-Andre Fleury: There should be very little doubt from anyone that Fleury is the team’s starting goaltender. He had arguably his best season in 2014-15 and, by most accounts inside and out, was the team’s MVP. Fleury is 30, has 4 years left on his contract, and has a cap hit of $5.75 million.
Thomas Greiss: He signed to a 1-year, $1-million contract last summer and made the team over Jeff Zatkoff, but he did little to earn praise for those decisions. He put up respectable slash numbers (9-6-3/2.59/.908), but he allowed an astonishing 22% of his goals on the power play, despite a team that ranked 3rd in the NHL in penalty killing percentage. He also was much stronger prior to February 1st (.916 SV%) than after (.896). Greiss is 29, so he is out of any main development stage. And room needs to be made in the system for an upcoming group of quality netminders.
Jeff Zatkoff: He turns 28 this summer and has 1 year left on his contract at a hit of only $600,000. He has performed well at the NHL level (12-7-3/2.58/.913) and would at least match the performance of Greiss. And his final contract year may be all that is needed to hold the fort until reinforcements arrive in the form of Matt Murray and Tristan Jarry.
Matt Murray: He was the AHL Goaltender of the Year and will likely be ready for some time in the NHL. But another full year in WBS would bode well for his future, preparing him to take a spot on the NHL roster the following season.
At first glance, there are a few tough decisions to be made with this group. But with deeper analysis, this group essentially takes care of itself.
Paul Martin: He has been a consistent performer for this team for 5 seasons, as well as consistently underrated through much of that time. But Martin is now 33 and has completed a contract that was worth $5 million per year. Even if he seeks less money for what could likely be his final professional contract, Martin would still take up a few million towards the cap. With plenty of other options in the organization, that is just not worth it. it is time to thank Paul Martin contributions here and allow him to sign elsewhere and all indications are both sides are prepared to part ways.
Christian Ehrhoff: This is an easier decision than Martin. Signing him for 1 year at $4 million was a highly-questionable move from the start. That acquisition would have made sense if it prepped the organization for a subsequent move of Martin, Rob Scuderi, or even Letang. But it did not, even if the Maatta injury prevented it. Ehrhoff was fairly good, but his $4 million would have been better spent on, you guessed it, a scoring winger. The chance to do just that has presented itself again, and that needs to be done this time around.
Kris Letang: He is a lock to return to the team, barring any lingering concussion issues. Letang comes with a considerable cap impact, at a $7.25 million annual average value (AAV), but he also has 7 years left on that deal.
Olli Maatta: The superstar-in-the-making is also a lock to return if he gets past injury issues. He has one year left on his entry-level contract, which only costs the team $925,000. An injury-free Maatta is of tremendous value to the team and could have a breakout season.
Derrick Pouliot: He is surely in line for his first full season with the team. He still needs work on his defensive zone play, but that growth needs to happen at the NHL level. Offensively, he is capable of contributing numbers similar to Martin (3+17=20). Like Maatta, he comes at a cost of $925,000 but has 2 years left on that deal.
Ben Lovejoy: The 31-year-old blueliner has another year left on his acquired contract. His aggressive style drew some criticism in the playoffs, but his effort on the ice and leadership in the locker room helped lead a defensive group that never gave up in the face of adversity. His cap hit is minimal at $1.133 AAV. The combination of Letang, Maatta, Pouliot, and Lovejoy gives the team 4 quality NHL defensemen.
Scott Harrington: He still has one year left on his pro contract and certainly warrants consideration for more NHL time this season. He is only 22 years old and costs the team just $618,000 against the cap. If the team spends so much time, attention, and money with the forwards that they are left with Harrington as one of their six NHL defensemen, the Penguins are still in good shape.
Rob Scuderi: The decision on the players above are easy because they are all under contract and capable of solid seasons, but it gets more difficult with Scuderi, who has the worst contract on the team. He counts for $3.375 million against the cap and still has two years of that remaining, despite being 36. The Penguins management needs to seriously consider a buyout of Scuderi’s contract. Buyouts still result in a cap hit – a lesser value spread over more years. In Scuderi’s case, his buyout would reduce his impact to $1.292 million for next season. His play, as it is, would certainly be worth less than $2 million, and as cited, this team needs to get younger and develop younger players.
Ian Cole: He was the one acquisition that actually obtained the objective of bringing in players this year who would raise their game in the postseason (only Maxime Lapierre may also fall in that category). Cole may have found a home for himself in Pittsburgh, but his contract is up. His cap value was just $832,000 under his previous deal, and at age 26, he is still only a restricted free agent. His next contract would not likely break the bank, and he should be re-signed for an AAV less than about $1.5 million.
Brian Dumoulin: He is also a restricted free agent. His stellar play at the AHL level and his serviceable contributions in limited time with the NHL team warrant serious consideration for an NHL role. He will also be waiver eligible next season. He was the team’s best defenseman in Game 4 against the Rangers, showing his value. Dumoulin will be just 24 at the start of the season, and his cost should fall at or under the $1 million range, since his previous AAV was $832,000.
With Letang, Maatta, Pouliot, Lovejoy, Cole, Dumoulin, and Harrington, the Penguins would have 7 reliable defensemen. This includes a cap hit for the group – including Scuderi’s buyout – of around just $15 million. Additionally, 28-year-old Taylor Chorney can be re-signed for very little (he played for the league minimum of $550k this past year) and provides a very sound option as an 8th defenseman in case the team is plagued with injuries next year. This also reduces the average age of the 8 defensemen into the mid-20’s and does not require the team to seek any outside free agents.