Pittsburgh Penguins Offseason Storylines Worth Watching

Photo courtesy of Pittsburgh Penguins website

The Pittsburgh Penguins' overtime Game 7 loss to the New York Rangers is still very fresh in many people’s minds. The gratitude towards the core three of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang has been apparent on social media ever since the Rangers’ overtime winner was scored. It’s been a whirlwind ever since.

There is still a lot of hockey to enjoy over the next few weeks. Eight teams remain in the NHL playoffs and all eight have a legitimate case to stake their claim as Stanley Cup champions when the playoffs are said and done.

I, myself, will continue to watch the playoffs despite the Penguins being ousted simply because there’s not much better than playoff hockey. Some of you will likely hate watch the Rangers and Carolina Hurricanes series with the hope that likely Vezina Trophy winner Igor Shesterkin continues his lackluster postseason performance and the Rangers fall to the Hurricanes. Maybe you’ll tune out completely because the Penguins aren’t playing.

Whatever you’re going to do is completely your prerogative. But regardless of what you’ll do. One of the top things on any Penguins fan's mind will be how the team will handle the offseason and the storylines that will play out as the draft, free agency, and all that other fun offseason stuff starts to approach.

I think it’s about time we take a look at some of the most pressing storylines that Pittsburgh will face as their offseason has already begun.

Could Ron Hextall’s Time in Pittsburgh Come to an End?

Why not start off with a controversial topic, right?

I’m not suggesting Hextall’s Pittsburgh tenure has been a failure. He’s only been on the job for a little over a year now and has overseen just a season and a half for the Penguins.

Hextall has acquired pieces like Jeff Carter, Rickard Rakell, and Mark Friedman through trades and waiver claims. He has yet to trade a first-round pick, something the team likely gave him as an ultimatum in any trade he makes unless ownership approved of such a deal.

Among the pieces he’s sent out, only Dominik Simon and Zach Aston-Reese played legitimate roles for the NHL club. And he’s done all of this with little to no cap space to make these moves.

Now, the Penguins stare down the most important offseason of their franchise’s recent history. The Fenway Sports Group (FSG) now owns the Penguins, a group that didn’t hire Hextall in the first place, but he would finally have some wiggle room regarding the salary cap.

Is FSG going to allow Hextall to make all of these important decisions, chief among them the Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang contract negotiations? Or, will they bring in their own guy and send Hextall packing less than two years into his Penguins tenure?

I don’t know if that will happen. It seems a bit harsh, but ownership changes often bring about personnel changes in both the front office and on the field or the ice. It’ll be FSG’s first offseason pulling the purse strings so things could get interesting in more ways than just the on-ice performers changing.

There Are Personnel Decisions Outside of 71 and 58

The contracts of Malkin and Letang will certainly be the main topic of discussion until we get to a final resolution but there are so many more free agents the Penguins will have to decide upon.

Bryan Rust is likely going to be the third most talked about as we get closer to the opening of free agency. He’ll be an unrestricted free agent and is going to obviously want a raise from his $3.5 million cap hit. Unless one of Malkin or Letang goes, it’s hard to imagine Rust coming back. He was a part of two Stanley Cup teams and flanked Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin on their lines for most of that time. It will be sad to see him go but, financially, it doesn’t seem feasible that he’ll return.

Kasperi Kapanen finally bloomed in the playoffs but was nothing close to what the Penguins wanted this season. He made $3.2 million and is a restricted free agent this offseason so the Penguins will own his rights. They could just let him walk and receive nothing in return or try and bring him back at a more reasonable “prove-it” cap number.

Rickard Rakell was Hextall’s trade deadline acquisition this season. It was hoped he’d make a big impact in the playoffs but he was injured in the 1st period of Game 1 against the Rangers, and didn’t return until game seven. It would be nice to bring Rakell back for another go next season but it will be interesting to see how the Penguins handle it. He had only a $2.5 million cap hit this season. He could be a nice, cheaper substitute for Rust on Crosby’s line.

Other free agents include Evan Rodrigues and Danton Heinen who both set career highs in goals on one-year deals and probably will seek opportunities elsewhere at a higher dollar rate.

Brian Boyle, Louis Domingue, and Nathan Beaulieu are all UFA’s and probably won’t be retained.

Another interesting UFA to watch will be Casey DeSmith, who I’ll outline more in this next storyline.

The Backup Goaltending Situation

Tristan Jarry, rightfully, will be back next season as the Penguins number one goaltender barring some crazy trade. He’ll have just next season left on his current deal that pays him $3.5 million per year. It is a team friendly cap hit for a number one goalie in the NHL. He will command a raise after that but that’s a worry for next offseason.

The Penguins’ biggest concern this offseason will be what they do concerning their goaltending depth.  DeSmith and Domingue are both on expiring contracts and the Penguins will have to decide what to do with both.

Domingue would be the cheaper option. He’s been a backup or depth goaltender his entire career. His performance in the playoffs wasn’t good enough to go anywhere and command real money. Sure, he won three playoff games but his stats weren’t stats you’d pay a goaltender for. There’s at least a chance he comes back as depth.

DeSmith is an interesting one.  He was one of the worst backup goaltenders in the league early in the season. It was at a point where the Penguins didn’t trust him and Jarry was playing entirely too much. The second half of the season, DeSmith found his footing and turned things around mightily.

When Jarry went down due to injury with a few games left in the regular season, it looked like DeSmith finally got his break to prove himself.  He looked good down the stretch and then made 48 saves before being pulled in the second overtime of game one, eventually having core muscle surgery that would sideline him for the rest of the playoffs.

He finally had a chance to prove he could be more than just a backup and could get a multi-year deal in free agency to secure his financial future. All of that seemed to evaporate with the injury.  The Penguins could bring DeSmith back to backup Jarry or allow him to walk and compete elsewhere for a starting gig.  

Pittsburgh could also look on the free-agent market for a veteran to spell Jarry more often so he doesn’t play himself into fatigue. I hear there’s a certain former Penguins starting goaltender hitting free agency that I’m sure will be linked to the Penguins a ton in free agency and his name rhymes with blurry. I’ll let you connect the dots.

The entire situation bares watching for sure.

Smartly Using the $28 Million in Cap Space

For the Penguins, $28 million is a huge number to have for free agency, trades, and other roster related moves. They haven’t had that excess in a long time and they’re a team that will spend to the cap in just about every season.

Any money given to Malkin, Letang, or Rust is going to cut a chunk into that number. If two of them are signed, nearly half of that cap space will be gone quickly.

I’m going to play mock general manager here and announce that the Penguins have just re-signed Evgeni Malkin for three years at $6.5 million a season and allowed Letang and Rust to sign elsewhere, which I feel is the most likely possibility. Rakell also just signed a multi-year deal for $4 million per season in my fantasy GM world.

That’s going to leave the Penguins with around $17.5 million in cap space. I’ll leave the specific free agent signings for a later piece and instead specify what I’d use that cap space on.

With $17.5 million, Pittsburgh has plenty of space to work with to add to the holes on their roster.

They’ll be without a backup goalie which they can probably bring in on a one-year deal for $2-3 million. A decision will have to be made if the Penguins want to make Mike Matheson their number one defenseman after a strong year or if they’ll be in the market to sign a big name free agent to fill Letang’s void. That will likely run them in the neighborhood of $7-9 million.

Let’s assume they do these things and use the middle figure of my projections. Those two signings eat up $10.5 million and leave the Penguins with precisely $7 million to work with. They would then have to fill out the rest of the roster with some depth while also considering their Wilkes-Barre/Scranton roster.

Of course, they could bypass the big name defenseman and just replace Letang with Pierre-Olivier Joseph to start next season and see how he plays.  This would save money and allow the Penguins to sign some middle-six players.

That much cap space brings about so many possibilities for the Penguins and their roster construction plan for next year. Will they try and emphasize getting faster? Could they beef up the lineup with some bigger, yet slower players so they don’t seem as soft? 

What they do will be very interesting. If none of Malkin, Letang, or Rust come back, the Penguins could be big time players on some of the better free agents on the market.