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The Penguins NHL/AHL In-House Options

Is Tyler Kennedy in the picture for the Penguins next season?
Is Tyler Kennedy in the picture for the Penguins next season?

I know this topic is sort of old news but I figured I would add to the topic with a sort of AHL spin on the free agents this organization has to think about this off season.

Right now the Penguins have 16 forwards signed through next season for the entire organization for both the NHL and AHL levels. Clearly Ray Shero and company have their work cut out for them this summer.

The lucky 16, in order of salary cap hits are:

Sidney Crosby ($8.7 million), Evgeni Malkin ($8.7 million), Jordan Staal ($4 million), Chris Kunitz ($3.725 million), James Neal ($2.875 million), Matt Cooke ($1.8 million), Keven Veilleux ($854,167), Casey Pierro-Zabotel ($850,000), Eric Tangradi ($845,833), Brian Gibbons ($665,000), Mark Letestu ($625,000), Paul Thompson ($615,000), Tom Kuhnhackl ($610,000), Nick Petersen ($566,666), Zach Sill ($525,000) and Joe Vitale ($512,500).

Clearly guys like Zabotel, Gibbons, Thompson, Kuhnhackl and Petersen aren't even close to being NHL ready. Only two of those guys saw AHL action last season (Thompson and Petersen) and only Petersen played more than a handful of AHL games.

I think Sill, Vitale and Veilleux have a chance to make the NHL club next season if they have outstanding showings at training camp and the organization doesn't sign a lot of forwards over the summer. These three will most likely start next season in the AHL.

You might remember that Vitale made the jump to the NHL when all those forwards were injured around the time of the Pens/Islanders slugfest. Veilleux had injury problems that shortened his rookie season, but the second half of first full season of pro hockey shows that Veilleux has NHL potential if he can remain healthy. Not too often do you see a guy his size with the set of hands he has. Sill reminds me a lot of what Max Talbot was when he was in Wilkes-Barre. An energy guy who isn't afraid to drop the gloves to spark the team,a funny guy who is good to have in the locker room and a great penalty killer. An all around hard working player that fits into to Pens system perfectly.

That leaves eight forwards for the NHL club and eight that  fit into the AHL affiliate.

After the jump a more in-depth look at all of the organizations in-house options before they look to the free agency market on July 1st.

NHL UFA Forwards (13), with last season's cap hits

Alexei Kovalev ($5 million), Pascal Dupuis ($1.4 million), Max Talbot ($1.050 million), Mike Rupp ($825,000), Eric Godard ($750,000), Arron Asham ($700,000), Craig Adams ($550,000), Chris Conner ($550,000), Mike Comrie ($500,000), Nick Johnson ($500,000), Ryan Craig ($500,000), Brett Sterling ($500,000) and Tim Wallace ($500,000)

It's easy to say Kovalev won't be back unless he takes a big salary cut. The Pens simply can't afford him at his current rate. The only reason they were able to bring him in at the deadline this past season was because of the LTIR space that Malkin's $8.7 million gave the Pens.

After that it's tough to say that any of the remaining players are locks one way or the other.We've talked a lot about Dupuis, Talbot, Godard, Asham, Rupp, Adams and Comrie. I'll focus my attention to the others on the NHL UFA list.

Guys that most likely won't play in the NHL next season could opt to sign with the organization to play in the AHL if they are offered a contract at all. That would be guys like Chris Conner, Nick Johnson, Ryan Craig, Brett Sterling and Tim Wallace.

Of those five, I'd love to have four of them back. Conner has shown he can play in the NHL and would be a good depth signing from a WBS perspective. He started last year with the AHL Penguins before making the jump to the NHL.  Nick Johnson had a great season in the AHL before suffering a concussion while on recall to the NHL. The WBS Penguins truly missed his scoring ability in the Calder Cup Playoffs. Ryan Craig was a great captain for the AHL Penguins this season and brings a ton of pro hockey experience. Tim Wallace is a solid two way forward and is 2nd all-time on the WBS Penguins list of games played with the organization. I might get chewed out for this one but I won't be as sad as most if/when Brett Sterling is not brought back. He can score with the best of them at the AHL level but just isn't consistent enough to make it in the NHL. I would be shocked if he was brought back.

Don't forget about the RFA forwards the Penguins have to make decisions on in order of priority:

Dustin Jeffrey, Tyler Kennedy and Joey Haddad

DJ and TK will hopefully both be retained and obviously will make the NHL roster. Haddad could be seen as somewhat of a disappointment. Sure he's performed well in the ECHL with the Wheeling Nailers, but he hasn't done much for the WBS Penguins the last two seasons (45 games played - 2G, 8A). Haddad had a great postseason with the Nailers that ended a short time ago, registering 12 points (6G,6A) in as many games. He was actually given an NHL contract, but probably won't get another one from the Pens this off season.

Let's take a look at the 10 AHL UFA's the Penguins organization has to think about at the forward position:

Jesse Boulerice, Chris Collins Brandon DeFazio, Bryan Lerg, David Marshall, Tyler Murovich, Andrew Orpik, Ryan Schnell,Ben Street and Geoff Walker.

Of the 10 guys in the above list, I think Bryan Lerg and Ben Street are the most likely to be retained. Lerg has close ties with WBS head coach John Hynes and Hynes basically got him on board with WBS at the beginning of the season. That's not to say that's why he stuck with the AHL Penguins though. He's a solid two way player and definitely plays the Pens system very well. Lerg is another undersized forward in the Pens organization but that didn't stop him from racking up 32 points (15G, 17A) in 65 games this past season. I think Lerg can be a top-six forward for the AHL Penguins next season if needed.

Ben Street was the ECHL's rookie of the year posting 51 points (24G, 27A) in just 38 games with the Wheeling Nailers. He came to the AHL in the midst of all the injuries and earned his spot, recording 23 points (12G, 11A) in his last 32 regular season games with the WBS Penguins. He didn't have a great post season (one assist in eight games) but as a whole had a great first season of pro hockey. I'd be stunned if the organization doesn't offer him at least an AHL deal.

I really liked how Geoff Walker picked up his game in the 2nd half of the season and wouldn't mind having him around next season. He developed chemistry with linemates Keven Veilleux and Ryan Craig and I would be fine if that trio was back as a unit next year. Chris Collins is another toss-up. He was a two way player for the WBS Penguins this season and another undersized forward. Check out his season review I wrote up last week here.

Both teams need an enforcer so of Godard, Boulerice and Schnell you would expect two of them to stay. I think Boulerice, at 32, is on his way out and I'll be sad to see him go. Nothing personal but his skills are clearly diminishing and he's becoming a less versatile hockey player. Not guaranteeing that the other two will both be brought back but I like their chances more than Boulerice's.

DeFazio, Murovich, Marshall and Andrew Orpik figure to be borderline ECHL/AHL players if they are brought back next season. Of those four I have only seen Marshall play more than a few games. Marshall works hard and I won't be upset if he's brought back but at the same token if he's not re-signed I won't cancel my season tickets.

Signing Zach Sill yesterday makes the AHL depth chart that much better.

Here's my first stab at what both teams look like up front with only the guys that are definitely signed for next season.

NHL Penguins

Neal - Crosby - 1RW

Kunitz - Malkin - 2RW

Cooke - Staal - 3RW

Tangradi - Letestu - 4RW

Obviously not set in stone with wingers all on the left, but the center position is clearly deep with the four already signed. The Pens still need 6 forwards at least that are NHL ready to field a competitive lineup up front. If RFA's Jeffrey and Kennedy are retained, the Pens could stick with mostly in-house free agents.

AHL Penguins

Veilleux - 1C  -1RW

2LW- Vitale - Petersen

Thompson - Sill - 3RW

4LW - 4C - Gibbons

Still a lot of work left to fill in the AHL lineup too. I'm hoping to see Craig, Street and Lerg re-signed in the near future. Right now I'd like to think the AHL Penguins have 5 forwards that will crack the opening night lineup already signed for next season. These lines are probably going to change with every signing but as it stands now the WBS Penguins need an AHL vet at 1C (Craig), two top-six wingers that can score (Johnson & ?) and a couple of guys in the bottom six.