For the first time in nearly 20 years, an NHL team has won back to back championships, as the Pittsburgh Penguins won their second Stanley Cup in as many years. Despite a barrage of injuries, the Penguins overcame and went all the way.
However, with every Cup championship, there’s the party, and then there’s the hangover that is the cap hell of the offseason. I’m sure Jim Rutherford will ignore it by plugging his two Cup rings in his ears, but if the Penguins want a chance at a threepeat, they’ll have to play it smart.
You can’t talk about the Penguins without first mentioning their three headed monster up front. Sidney Crosby had a rough start with a concussion, but proceeded to win the Maurice Richard with 44 goals, and was tied for second in scoring with 89 points, Evgeni Malkin thrived in Crosby’s shadow with 72 points in 62 games, and Phil Kessel continued his consistency in both scoring and durability, with 70 points in 82 games, the only Penguin to play all 82 games. After that, they have their veteran depth. Patric Hornqvist was solid with 44 points, but Nick Bonino had a down year with only 37 points, Carl Hagelin had a really down year with only six goals and 22 points in 61 points, and Chris Kunitz showed his age with only 29 points. However, they had a few good seasons from their younger players to make up for it, as Conor Sheary excelled on Crosby’s wing with 53 points in 61 games, Jake Guentzel had a great rookie season with 33 points in 40 games, and Bryan Rust was solid with 28 points in 57 games.
On defense, it starts with Kris Letang. He had another typical Letang season, in that he put up points, and was great defensively, but also had some weird injury that kept him out most of the season, as he put up 34 points in 41 games. Justin Schultz was excellent in Letang’s absense, as he put up 51 points this season, beating his career high by almost 20 points. Rounding out the top four is Brian Dumoulin, who isn’t great offensively, but solid defensively, and Trevor Daley, who isn’t all that great at either ends of the ice. The Penguins looked to Ian Cole, Olli Maatta, Ron Hainsey, Chad Ruhwedel, and Mark Streit to fill in on the bottom pair, and slide into the top four whenever the team suffered injuries, which happened very frequently.
In net, Matt Murray was given an opportunity to continue his playoff success from last season, and was given the reigns this season in the crease, albeit to a lesser extent, so that way neither him or Marc-Andre Fleury were gassed come playoff time. However, he performed a significantly better than Fleury, with a .923% save percentage compared to Fleury’s .909%.
The Penguins have most of their core locked up long term, with Malkin, Kessel, Letang, and Maatta’s contracts locked up until 2023 (boy, that’ll be a fun offseason), and Crosby locked up until 2023, while Matt Murray’s three year extension kicks in this season. After that, that’s where things get dicey, as they have only nine additional players locked up for next season, with only one of them being a defenseman, and one being a goalie.
They have about $15 million in cap space to work with, but they have to re-sign (*takes deep breath*) Matt Cullen, Bonino, Josh Archibald, Kunitz, Sheary, Oskar Sundqvist, Daley, Hainsey, Dumoulin, Schultz, Streit, and Ruhwedel. There’s a decent chance that Cullen, Streit, Hainsey, and possibly Kunitz retire, but even then, that’s eight players for $15 million. They might see an additional $5.75 in cap space if Vegas takes Fleury, but the Detroit Red Wings may have thrown a wrench in those plans by not protecting Petr Mrazek.
OFFSEASON GAME PLAN
The expansion draft might be a blessing in disguise for the Penguins. While it means that they’re probably going to lose a quality player in Fleury or Hagelin, but they also lose their cap hits, which is beneficial considering their cap situation. Keeping this in mind, they might have almost $21 million in cap space, which really helps their chances of somewhat bringing the band back together.
With re-signing their players, the Penguins are going to have to make some tough choices. If any of them don’t retire, I probably wouldn’t offer Cullen, Kunitz, Hainsey, or Streit contracts, unless they were willing to sign for cheap on a one year deal. That alone brings you down to eight contracts to re-sign. The only players out of the six defensemen with expired contracts that I’d probably bring back is Dumoulin and Schultz, who combined would probably take up $7 million. If you’d rather not look to the minors to fill the six spot, maybe offer Streit a contract if he doesn’t retire.
With forwards, I’d look to getting Archibald, Sheary, and Sundqvist under contract before focusing on Bonino. Archibald and Sundqvist should probably be under $1 million each, while I’d imagine Sheary to be in the $3 million range, although he might make $4-5 million too. After that, maybe consider bringing back Bonino on a short term deal, maybe 2-3 years at $3-4 million. The Penguins have the advantage of Bonino coming off a bad year to possibly cheapen his deal.
In the trade market, the Penguins should really only look to make a trade if Vegas doesn’t take Fleury, and try to trade his contract to create more cap space, or in exchange for a forward or defenseman to improve their depth in those regards even more. Other than that, there isn’t a whole lot to do in the trade front.
With free agency, I wouldn’t even consider it unless a good player approaches you. If Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Jarome Iginla, Kevin Shattenkirk, or anyone who desperately wants a Cup approaches you and is willing to take a cheap $1-2 million contract for a year to win a Cup with you, why the hell not. Especially with the first three, who are in the final years of their careers and are probably looking at this as their last chance at winning it. Other than that, don’t touch anyone that wants money and/or term, unless it’s insanely cheap for term.
So, at first the Penguins cap situation seems bleak, but if you break it down, and if Pittsburgh makes the right moves, they could very well be contending for a Cup again next year without missing a step. Even if they don’t make the right moves, they have Crosby and Malkin, that’s probably all they need.
30. Colorado Avalanche, 29. Vancouver Canucks, 28. Arizona Coyotes, 27. New Jersey Devils, 26. Buffalo Sabres, 25. Detroit Red Wings, 24. Dallas Stars, 23. Florida Panthers, 22. Los Angeles Kings, 21. Carolina Hurricanes, 20. Winnipeg Jets, 19. Philadelphia Flyers, 18. Tampa Bay Lightning, 17. New York Islanders, 16. Nashville Predators, 15. Calgary Flames, 14. Toronto Maple Leafs, 13. Boston Bruins, 12. Ottawa Senators, 11. San Jose Sharks, 10. St. Louis Blues, 9. New York Rangers, 8. Edmonton Oilers, 7. Montreal Canadiens, 6. Anaheim Ducks, 5. Minnesota Wild, 4. Columbus Blue Jackets