We’re about to enter an offseason where Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford has said that he doesn’t necessarily expect earth-shattering changes. “It’s fair to say that this will be a different looking team by the time we open next season,” Rutherford said last week at breakdown day. “It doesn’t mean there will be drastic changes, but there will be changes in the areas that will become necessary.”
If there are major changes, it won’t be because of free agency this year. The only remaining member of the NHL team who is unrestricted is reserve forward Carter Rowney. Pittsburgh has several restricted free agents (Bryan Rust, Riley Sheahan, Jamie Oleksiak, Dominik Simon, Tom Kuhnhackl, Tristan Jarry and Daniel Sprong the most notable) that will have to be dealt with in the summer. In the NHL’s system, an RFA is much more “restricted” than he is “free” with teams rarely, rarely ever trying to sign each other’s players. The Pens have about $11-12 million in cap space for next season, all of them can and will be brought back that the team wants, likely all of them.
Trades will be Rutherford’s key to likely reshaping and retooling the team, but speculating on that this early in the year for anything specific is probably way too assumptive to be accurate.
And that all overlooks what could be the most important decision that Pittsburgh could make, and possibly the longest-lasting good idea available. As of July 1, the Pens are free to extend the contract for Jake Guentzel.
No matter what happens, Guentzel will play 2018-19 on the final year of his standard three year entry level contract. Guentzel’s cap hit will be $734,167, clearly one of the best bargains in the league and clearly in need of a raise for 2019-20.
Pittsburgh can negotiate that this summer and get him signed up early. That would be beneficial for the team because the more Guentzel plays, the bigger his case is going to be for a huge contract. The player has no arbitration leverage, but it makes a lot of sense to take care of the best players and not let any issues linger.
Most recently the Penguins utilized an early signing for Matt Murray, grabbing the goalie for a three year contract extension worth $3.75 million per year for a contract that started in 2017-18 and goes through 2019-20. That rate is exceptionally good for a starting goalie, especially a young one with playoff success under his belt.
One good reason to sign Guentzel ASAP would be the shifting landscape of young players getting paid early. It used to be (for the most part) young players would sign shorter bridge deals (1-2 years) after their ELCs to further prove their value before a team locked them into 6-7-8 year contracts. That has faded of late, with teams committing quicker to players they deem cornerstones.
To look at Guentzel’s peers, I ran a hockey-reference scan of young wingers from 2015-2017 who scored 70 combined points in the two seasons, to see what their new contracts look like. In Guentzel’s first two years he has 81 points (38g+43a) in 122 games, so this range gives his players a bit under his level and all the way to the top, to consider Guentzel’s value among the very best wingers in the sports considering his 42 points (23g+19a) in 37 career playoff games turns some heads.
Here’s what we find for how the best young wingers in the game did on their next contract:
Artemi Panarin ($6.0 million per for 2 years)
Nikolaj Ehlers ($6.0 million per for 7 years)
David Pastrnak ($6.6 million per for 6 years)
Johnny Gaudreau ($6.75 million per for 6 years)
Panarin and Ehlers re-signed months before their ELC ended. In Chicago’s case, they were trying to keep the total $ down for a stud player in Panarin, that seemingly they knew they didn’t have the space to commit to for longer term and even more money. Their actions here is basically “kicking the can down the road” to deal with later due to bejng ina salary cap crunch. Luckily the Pens current situation is much more favorable than Chicago’s was back then.
The Jets bet on Ehlers and it has paid off handsomely- they have one of the most dynamic players in the league locked in, still at only 22 years of age and now with two 60+ point seasons under his belt and probably many more to come.
The Pasta example is EXACTLY what the Penguins would do well to AVOID with Guentzel. Boston didn’t (or couldn’t) sign Pastrnak after his 2nd season was over, and in his contract year he exploded for a 34g-36a-70p season in 2016-17. So they ended up having to pony up for him in a contentious negotiation that dragged all summer long. It’s still money well-spent being as he provided 35g-45a-80p this season in his first year under the extension, but his case is one Pittsburgh can learn from (and save a few shekels) if they avoid doing what Boston did here. Under Jeremy Jacobs the B’s have long been known as a cheap and difficult place to do business, which isn’t how the Pens operate so hopefully no issues there.
The Flames went down a similar path as Boston. Calgary couldn’t get Johnny Hockey locked up after his second ELC season saw him score 64 points. In his 3rd season Gaudreau followed up with a wonderful 30g-48a-78p stat line and had Calgary over the barrel enough to extract $6.75m per season. Another lesson to lock up your key RFAs early if at all possible.
Viktor Arvidsson ($4.25 million per for 7 years)
Kevin Hayes ($2.6 million per for 2 years)
Andre Burakovsky ($3.0 million per for 2 years)
Tobias Rieder ($2.25 million per for 2 years)
The Arvidsson contract is a team’s dream come true. The player locked in for all his prime years at a very fair rate, and he was coming off two full seasons of 55 and 61 points. Arvidsson doesn’t have elite skill, but he demonstrated great production and racked up points. He got long term, but the team got a really good price here.
Hayes and Burakovsky got bridge deals. Hayes got a very good deal for the team coming off two full seasons of 45 and 36 points. He showed a bit of growth in this contract, but probably doesn’t belong in the same category as gamebreakers like Pastrnak and Ehlers.
Burakovsky got paid for potential growth (he scored 22, 38 and 35 points in his ELC seasons), numbers Guentzel has beat in his first two years to date. Rieder is barely a blip on the radar with season of 37 and 35 points earning him a contract but Guentzel is far past his level at this point.
Max Domi (RFA this year)
Guentzel and the Pens will probably be interested to see what Domi gets from Arizona this summer as a comparable. His stat line isn’t exactly like Guentzel (Domi gets more assists, Guentzel more goals) but their overall numbers are pretty similar in the regular season. Guentzel obviously has the post-season portion on his resume to put in the mix and probably do better than whatever Domi gets.
What Domi gets probably should be above Hayes/Burakovsky territory and is probably the low-end baseline for a Guentzel bridge deal. Something like $3.5 for 2 for Domi makes sense in this climate of his peers.
If you’re the player of the player’s representation, you’re probably looking at how close to the Gaudreau/Pastrnak/Ehlers side of the line you can get. However, all of these guys have put up 60, 70, 80 point seasons and to date Guentzel has not done as well.
If you’re the team, you have to love the Arvidsson deal. In terms of role as a supporting forward who puts up points but mainly is their to support bigger stars, there’s probably a great comparison for Guentzel there too since he doesn’t play the top power play and will be in the shadows of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin just as Arvidsson is behind teammates like Filip Forsberg and Ryan Johansen.
If I’m the Penguins this summer, I show Guentzel’s camp the Arvidsson contract and see where they want to go from there. For a player like Guentzel he can go from an anonymous mid-round pick into fully guaranteeing almost $30 million for himself and his family and get his contract status resolved early after just 1.5 seasons in the NHL.
If Guentzel doesn’t want a term of 7 years but a shorter one and the Pens can still get him in for anything more than 4 they’re buying out UFA years, so that would be the key to watch. Any contract for 4+ years at a rate under $5 million would be a smash for the team, based on peer comparables seen above.
If it’s for the right price, both sides would be better off putting this one to rest early this summer and moving on to better things. The Pens will have plenty of space to fit Guentzel’s raise into their 2019-20 salary structure but time and again it has proven to sign a good young player early and move on to other items. Hopefully that will be the case this year.