The Pittsburgh Penguins’ hockey season ended in bitter disappointment with a second-round loss to the 8th-seeded Montreal Canadiens. The Penguins clearly were not as good as they were a year ago when they took home the Stanley Cup.
Several key Penguins will be free agents this summer, and the salary cap will make it impossible to keep everyone. Obviously, with a core featuring Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Jordan Staal, this team is still a contender. What should the Pittsburgh Penguins do about their free agents this offseason?
Pittsburgh Penguins free agents: Forwards
The plan for the Pens should be to let most of their unrestricted free agents go, particularly the forwards, and replace them with guys who excelled at Wilkes-Barre, the team’s minor league affiliate.
Bill Guerin had a disappointing year and will almost certainly retire. Ruslan Fedotenko and Alexei Ponikarovsky were terrible and should be shown the door (though it wouldn’t surprise me if either pulled a Miro Satan and excelled somewhere else next season.) The only forward Pittsburgh needs to re-sign is agitator Matt Cooke, who had a solid season despite some questionable hits that resulted in suspensions.
The Penguins have several prospects who seem ready to make the jump to the NHL, including Mark Letestu, Chris Conner, Dustin Jeffrey, and Eric Tangradi. Sure, they’ll make some rookie mistakes, but if they are allowed to play in the NHL for the entire season, they’ll be more seasoned by the time the playoffs roll around.
The Penguins are up against the salary cap so they have no choice but to bring up the young guys and let them sink or swim. Hopefully they’ll provide a much-needed infusion of energy that was lacking this past season. If they fail, GM Ray Shero can always swing some minor trades to bring in a veteran or two.
Pittsburgh Penguins free agents: Defense
Defense is where Pittsburgh really needs an upgrade. Who knew they would miss Rob Scuderi and Hal Gill so much? The Penguins were not good on defense most of the year and they need to find some stay-at-home defensemen to complement offensive weapons like Kris Letang and Alex Goligoski.
The big question is what to do about Sergei Gonchar. Like everyone else on the team, Gonchar had an inconsistent year. He put up his usual points, but he also had a bunch of bad giveaways – more than we’ve seen from Gonchar since his disastrous first year here. He’s 36 now and his level of play is only going to keep slipping.
That said, I’d make an attempt to re-sign Gonchar at a deeply discounted price for a short term, perhaps 2 years for $7 million. If Gonchar won’t accept that, and he probably won’t, let him walk.
Penguins fans are frustrated with Letang and Goligoski, but they’re still young and they’re the future here. It’s time for Letang to step into the Gonchar role and for Goligoski to step into the Letang role. With Gonchar gone, hopefully they’ll rise to the challenge.
Jordan Leopold, Jay McKee, and Mark Eaton are all free agents as well. Eaton should be a priority to re-sign but he’s likely to get more money elsewhere. If Eaton leaves, the Pens must keep McKee. He’s a perfect seventh defenseman who can be a top-six guy in case of injury.
I’d try to bring back Leopold at a reasonable price. Leopold was so-so, but he was often paired with Goligoski, an offensive pairing that was bound to fail. Put Leopold with a more defensive partner and he’ll be fine. He also provides another offensive weapon from the blue line in case Goligoski fails.
That would still leave Pittsburgh needing two defensive defensemen. One could be Ben Lovejoy from the minors. But at least one needs to come via free agency. Shero needs to find another shut-down Gill or Scuderi type to shore up the team’s soft defense.
Pittsburgh Penguins free agents: Goalies
Both Marc-Andre Fleury and Brent Johnson will be back so no changes are necessary here. Fleury was maddeningly inconsistent, but he already has a Cup under his belt and he’s the guy this team is going to ride for the next five years, like it or not. Fleury is not an elite, world-class goalie, and he may never be one, but he’s good enough to take this team to another championship if the defense in front of him is better.
Pittsburgh Penguins offseason: Free agent strategy
Let ’em go:
Guerin, Ponikarovsky, Fedotenko
Try to bring them back but only at a cheap price:
Make a strong effort to re-sign:
Eaton, Cooke, McKee
Pittsburgh Penguins free agents: Sources