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NHL Free Agency: What are the Pens options on July 1?

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The Pittsburgh Penguins need to fill out their team, and July 1 is looming as a chance to sign the top unrestricted free agents. Surveying the market and seeing what makes sense for the Pens a week out.

Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

Now that the long anticipated (and dreaded) expansion draft is behind us, and the entry draft has come and gone, there's one major event before the NHL really bunkers down for the summer. This coming Saturday is July 1 and the Pittsburgh Penguins still have a lot of questions to answer about filling out their 2017-18 roster.

Let's reset and look at what the team looks like now in the past week that Marc-Andre Fleury and his cap hit are gone and Ryan Reaves is on board. Via the always great Capfriendly:

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If we go based off the logic from last week when dealing with restricted free agents Justin Schultz, Brian Dumoulin and Conor Sheary (who are all expected back, just a matter of how much $ and how much contract term) we have a working lineup of:

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Your mileage may vary, but no matter how you slice it, the Pens are in good shape. They should have about $8.4 million (after signing the big 3 RFA's) with the holes still left to fill being:

  • 3rd line center
  • 4th line center
  • 5th or 6th defenseman
  • Probably a veteran backup goalie to add depth (and, as you can see, we've baked in Tristan Jarry as the #2 right now, so this cost should be fairly minimal to add a goalie for a little more than Jarry's $630k cap hit)

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USA Today's Kevin Allen had a great preview of the free agent market, so let's dive in and think about what could be some options:

4. Center Joe Thornton: It’s still possible Thornton, 37, will return to San Jose, but the Sharks have opened the door to his possible departure by allowing him to talk to other teams. His numbers were down last season, but he still had 43 assists and 50 points in 79 games. Thornton is also coming off of surgery to a torn ACL and MCL. He still can serve as an elite set-up artist and leader. Good fit: St. Louis Blues or Nashville Predators

A big pipe dream around the internet has been the Pens getting Thornton as their 3C. Thornton has signed 3-year contracts in 2007, 2010 and 2014 and is rumored to be looking for the same now. Even at a $4-5 million range, given his age and knee injury history, that's probably a non-starter for a team like Pittsburgh.

Not to throw cold water on what would be a great idea, but the market is likely going to manufacture a multi-year deal somewhere. This, ideally, should take the Pens out of the mix. If his thought process changes because somehow he doesn't get the opportunities he's looking for, that changes the equation. We'll get to that bridge if we can, but right now I wouldn't bet on it.

7. Center Martin Hanzal: He’s a 6-foot-6, 225-pound center who can 20 goals. That’s all you need to know to understand his desirability. Good fit: Canadiens or Predators

With that glaring 3C hole staring Pens fans in the face, Hanzal could be an attractive option. At age 30, Hanzal's been a consistent 15 goal + 25 assist guy in the 3 of the past 4 seasons (once missing due to injury). Compared to Nick Bonino, that would be a slight scoring upgrade.

And, for a player who spent his whole career in Arizona, Hanzal did score 13 points in a small 20 regular season game sample in a higher octane system with Bruce Boudreau and the Wild after a trade. Hanzal definitely brings a lot of size, and would bring a lot to the faceoff circle - his 56.3% win rate from 2014-17 is 11th in the entire league for regular centers in the past three seasons. (Sidney Crosby is at 50.0% even and Evgeni Malkin is 42.6% in this same time range).

The issue with Hanzal will be the demand. Given age, size, offensive output and faceoffs, he's probably the best all-around center option to hit free agency this summer. He was making $3.1 million and is due a raise and will likely get a hefty 4-5-6 year contract offer. All of that is buying time in his 30's, where he's a past-peak player. And he's missed a bunch of games in recent years too.

Is he worth a $4+ million contract long-term? Seems like a bad bet for the latter years of that contract. But, at the same time, he would be a plug-and-play 3rd line center that ought to be one of the best in the league in that role, and he also hasn't been tasked with a ton of PK time either. Could be a case of buyer beware, and certainly seems like a guy that will command a bidding war.

8. Center Nick Bonino: Valued member of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ championship team. Ideal No. 3 center because he can kill penalties, block shots and contribute offensively. Has the skill to be a No. 2. Good fit: Predators

Perception could be a major problem for the Penguins bringing back Bonino. Just read above, nationally smart minds float the idea he has the skill to be a 2C. Anyone who's watched the Pens knows that's not the case, aside from a few red-hot months in 2016 when he was playing with a guy like Phil Kessel (hardly the average 2nd line type of player)...

That said, there's an "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" type of mentality too for Pittsburgh. Bonino's been a key cog in the Pens runs the past two years. He's an excellent shot blocker and PK'er. He can eat a ton of d-zone starts to free Crosby and Malkin up for the glory.

The question becomes the price. With the aforementioned perception of Bonino with the shine of 2 Stanley Cup titles (and playing a game on a broken leg), he's a very high radar candidate across the league. He's also 29 years old and while that's young for a UFA - if you give him a 4-5-6 year contract you're buying a lot of past-peak years at a market rate.

The Pens salary structure is such that they could probably afford Bonino in the $4m range for the next year or two, thanks to some sweetheart contracts to Matt Murray and Jake Guentzel. However, this wouldn't be a good player to go long-term on and for that reason is also probably skating away from Pittsburgh.

9. Defenseman Trevor Daley: He could be a desirable consolation prize for a team that doesn’t land Shattenkirk. He can skate, move the puck and play on the power play. He also won’t break the bank. Don’t rule out Daley circling back to talk to the Penguins. Daley and the Penguins were comfortable with each other. Good fit: Detroit Red Wings

Daley is a lightning rod among Penguins fans, and he certainly did not have a good 2016-17 season. It looked like he never regained his form after a broken ankle in the 2016 playoffs. And worse, Daley and regular partner Olli Maatta seemed to somehow bring out the worst of each player, yet were both (probably correctly) slotted in as 2nd pair defensemen given their individual ability.

At 34 years old this October, this is definitely a buyer beware situation on Daley. If he "circles back" to Pittsburgh at a cheap-ish rate (say, anything $2 million or under) and for one year, it's wise to consider him in a 3rd pair role.

However, given that he was playing 20 minutes a night in the playoffs and found a way to survive, it would seem another team will set the market too high and for too much money, which he absolutely should take since this is likely his last chance at a multi-year big money deal. I'd bet against Daley back in Pittsburgh next year for that alone, and the Pens are probably better off for it.

11. Left wing Chris Kunitz: With Stanley Cup championships on his resume, Kunitz could be a valuable leader and performer for a team on the rise. He seems to have the ability to step up in the postseason.  At 37, he can’t expect multiple years. But he should have options. Good fit: Toronto Maple Leafs

Does the addition of Reaves push Kunitz out the door in Pittsburgh? It's something to consider at this point.

Reaves is likely the 4RW and the Penguins have other likely 3rd/4th line wingers in Bryan Rust, Carl Hagelin, Scott Wilson, Tom Kuhnhackl and possibly Carter Rowney. If those are all the wingers, that's already 2 too many. (Which says nothing of youngsters Zach Aston-Reese and Daniel Sprong who are likely NHL options sooner than later).

With the assumption that Kessel, Guentzel, Sheary and Patric Hornqvist in whatever order are going to be the top-6 wingers since all are more productive options for 2017-18 than Kunitz, who turns 38 in September, it suddenly looks like the important veteran is unnecessary.

But do the Pens look to bring Kunitz back anyways? If that's the plan, it would seemingly nod to a trade of a guy like Wilson/Kuhnhackl or a waiving of Rowney. Perhaps the Pens are willing to do that, but adding a 4th line physical player in Reaves might just push out the need for Kunitz next season.

Either way, I thought it was pretty likely Kunitz returned to Pittsburgh prior to the draft...Now that Reaves is in the picture it's become a lot more muddier.

12. Center Brian Boyle: Ultimate checking center. He’s a 6-foot-6 behemoth who can play physical and chip in clutch goals: Good fit: Columbus Blue Jackets

Boyle seems like a perfect 4C option for Pittsburgh. He's big and a playoff performer. A typical hard-working type of guy that's great for that role. Not totally sure what his market will be or if a GM is in love with him and offers a ton of money, but the Penguins could have about $2 million to spend on what it could take to bring Boyle in to offer size, faceoffs and a PK addition.

That's more than the Penguins have spent in past years on the 4C role but with PK ability and #grit, getting Brian Boyle on a 1 year deal might just be a best possible obvious available option on the free agency market.

13. Defenseman Michael Stone: The market for defensemen has been complicated by the Vegas Golden Knights' cache of blueliners they need to move. But Stone, 27, is 6-foot-3 and is more offensively skilled than people realize. Consistently effective. Good fit: Washington Capitals

Depending on price, could be a sneaky good 3RHD pickup for Pittsburgh. Pair him with Ian Cole and let Dumoulin-Letang, Maatta-Schultz eat top 4 minutes and Pittsburgh would seemingly have one of the better defensive groups in the league based on skill and roles.

14. Goalie Brian Elliott: Because of the expansion draft and the Flames and Stars moving early on goalies, there’s a limited market for free agents. The Philadelphia Flyers need a No. 1, and the Buffalo Sabres and Winnipeg Jets might make a move. Steve Mason and Ryan Miller are other goalies with no jobs yet, although Miller wants to say in the West. No goalie has much leverage in this situation. Good fit: Flyers

He's made a million dollars per season or less on short deals in the last 5 seasons. If interested in Pittsburgh, Elliott would be about a perfect backup veteran goalie for a team that has 19 back-to-back games next season and a starter in Murray who's missed some time with injuries in his brief career. Definitely worth kicking the tires on, though as mentioned a team like the Flyers might toss more money his way and the promise of a bigger starting role for him.

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As always, July holds a lot of surprises around the league. And not just in free agency, remember that Bonino was picked up in a trade as well.

Regardless of how they do it, it's obvious the Penguins need to add an NHL caliber center or two, and have open cap room to do so. Hopefully it doesn't result in a lot of long-term contracts, but if they can sign a guy like Hanzal and Boyle to reasonably team-friendly contracts and then maybe even make more moves like adding a Stone or Elliott, well Pittsburgh will be as strong on paper as any team in the league to enter the 2017-18 season.