On Wednesday night the Pittsburgh Penguins lost their most tenured player when Marc-Andre Fleury was selected by the Vegas Golden Knights in the 2017 NHL Expansion draft. That stings very much in an emotional way.
But, life moves on and ready or not the team will quickly have to shift into a business outlook for next season and beyond. In professional sports nothing lasts forever and everything turns over sooner or later.
Turning an eye to the future, if there's any consolation it's that the Pens 2017-18 salary cap picture suddenly looks very, very bright. From capfriendly, the Pens have $54.3 million tied to a $75.0 million upper limit with 10 forwards, 3 defensemen and 2 goalies currently under contract. Here's what the team looks like as of now:
That's not a full team, obviously, but as back-to-back Stanley Cup champions that's a hell of a starting point with pieces in place. Now the questions become:
Important Restricted Free Agents
GM Jim Rutherford has said Schultz was his priority, so I would expect to see some movement on him soon. He's in-line for a big raise off his $1.4 million salary now that he's one year away from unrestricted free agency and a career year of 12 goals and 39 assists to make 51 points as one of the highest scoring defensemen in the entire league. Do the Pens go long-term on him now? And at what price? Chances are it's going to start with a $5 million per year number. A contract is bound to happen, just stay tuned..
Sheary had a very successful first full NHL season, scoring 53 points (23g+30a) in 61 regular season games. But he's not in a position to break the bank, being a restricted free agent. He's eligible for arbitration, but his stats look a lot like where Jaden Schwarz was for St. Louis when he signed a 2 year deal for $1.5 million per year. If the Pens can get a deal like that done, they'll be better for it to see what Sheary can do on a 1-2 year bridge at a relatively low salary before committing to him longer-term.
Dumoulin is a guy who was in Sheary's shoes a couple of years ago, even though he was far less established at the time. The Pens got him on a 2 year bridge at a steal of $800,000 per year. That number is going up big time now that Dumoulin is a few years away from UFA and has proven himself as a valuable defenseman.
Dumo's in a weird spot, usually players that don't produce big boxcar numbers (1g+14a in 70 games last season) don't usually break the bank with a huge salary. But Dumoulin was a huge performer in both Cup runs and is a stud top-4 player that is still young and ought to be good player for the foreseeable future.
One really good contract comparable for Dumoulin is Nashville's Mattias Ekholm. They're a similar age and have similar skills and statistical output (3g+20a this past season), though you could argue Ekholm is probably a bit of a better all-around player and certainly a more physical one. Ekholm had a contract kick in for 6 years at $3.75 million per last season. If the Penguins want to go long-term for Dumoulin now, as hopefully they will want to, that's a good neighborhood for player and team. Given that comparable skills, it should be a little lower of a salary.
Trying to go a little on the side of caution and generous, but if we pencil Schultz in at $5.25 million, Sheary at $2.0 and Dumoulin at $3.25 that's a total of $10.5 million added to the cap, That's a give and take with maybe a little more for one player or a little less for another, but for a ballpark seems reasonable. If that happens, Pittsburgh would be at $64.8 million total with a roster looking like this:
But there's still a little more work to do, with up to $10.2 million left to spend.
UFA's to decide on
Chris Kunitz - has already said he wants to play next year, is comfortable in Pittsburgh and it won't be all about the money. The Penguins don't really need depth at winger (especially with youngsters like Daniel Sprong and Zach Aston-Reese knocking on the door) but vet leadership and a physical edge won't be overlooked. If Kunitz wants to stay in Pittsburgh at 1 year for $1.5 million, that's a deal I think you make right now with no second thoughts.
Matt Cullen - seems like he's made his mind up already and reportedly is believed to be leaning to retirement. We'll assume for this exercise that he's closing this chapter in his book and moving on to retirement, but if he's not, he's an obvious re-signing for a guy who only wants to play in Pittsburgh and still would be one of the best 4th line centers in the league.
Nick Bonino - had a bad season, but just is such a playoff performer. He blocks shots, kills penalties, takes a ton of faceoffs, he probably doesn't score as much as hoped for a 3C role, but he is a good all-around player. The heavy lifting he does to take d-zone starts and be a solid PK option to help free Crosby/Malkin up for better is an important aspect of the team that might fly a little under the radar.
Now the question becomes: are the Pens interested in bringing him back? Or is the market for him coming off two Stanley Cups going to boost his value too much? Tough to say right now, if we had to guess, he's probably moving on.
Holes to fill
3rd line center - Whether it's Bonino or a trade or a free agent signing, the Pens should have some money available to shore up this important position. Pittsburgh has always been built with strength down the middle, and it's no secret or surprise that they will need to find someone for this spot.
4th line center - is it Cullen? Or is it Oskar Sundqvist, a restricted free agent who can be added for under a million bucks? Or is it Carter Rowney? Either way, important decision to have but not one that should be any trouble in finding a good part for this role.
2 defensemen - the Pens most likely will waive goodbye to Ron Hainsey and Trevor Daley. Though both vets struggled at times, they also ate a ton of minutes and need to be replaced. Will youngsters like Derrick Pouliot and Frank Corrado be given a chance? Chad Ruhwedel (UFA) could also probably be brought back for a reasonable price as a right-handed shot who can provide depth. One would think through trade or FA the Pens will need to bring in at least another defenseman to round things out, given the injury history of the guys they have.
Backup goalie - right now Tristan Jarry is the #2 spot on the organization's depth chart. While he is a promising young goalie, if you know anything about Jim Rutherford it's that he values and will search for depth at goal. It seems almost impossible that the Penguins won't even try to add a NHL-capable goalie, and there are always options here. Just look at Mike Condon (who was one of the best backups in the league) that the Pens got off waivers when they needed him. Even if it takes until that point again of other teams waiving a guy after camp, Pittsburgh should be able to add a vet, if they don't sign one in the summer.
Regardless of what they do, for the first time since 2008-09 when Fleury's big contract kicked in, the Penguins should be spending under $6 million on the net this season. If they do go with Matt Murray+Jarry it will be under $5. This may seem like a footnote, but it's very important. With all the money invested in Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and Phil Kessel the Penguins having one of the cheaper goalie spots in the league will boost them big time to dedicate more cap space for forwards and defensemen.
Bottom line outlook: the Penguins should be able to bring back Schultz, Sheary, Dumoulin plus Sundqvist and (hopefully) keep UFA's on reasonable money in Kunitz + Ruhwedel and still have about $7 million under the cap for next season. The only holes left are to figure out who is the 3rd line center and potentially add a 3/4/5 type of defenseman. There's also the possibility of adding a veteran backup goalie, but considering Jarry's salary is already baked in, adding a guy probably won't be that much more.
All things considered, this is a glorious position to be in heading into the off-season with the main core intact of a team that has won the last 2 Stanley Cups. With some wise and shrewd decisions on the options and holes left, should be in a terrific opportunity on paper to have one of the best teams in the league yet again for 2017-18 and even beyond considering guys like Jake Guentzel and Matt Murray are locked in at good rates for 2018-19 as well.
Losing Marc-Andre Fleury is a brutal pill to swallow for a lot of emotional and sentimental reasons, but the Penguins literally haven't had this much cap room heading into an off-season in a decade. And, this time, they already have elite players signed for years to come. Time to build out the rest and with an intact coaching staff and what looks like full health (for now, at least), Pittsburgh will be as scary next season as they ever have been.