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Five huge questions the Penguins must answer this offseason

GM Rutherford doesn’t have to deal with the stress of signing tons of unrestricted free agents this offseason, but he does have to consider a few major roster components. Here are some of the key ones.

NHL: Pittsburgh Penguins at Toronto Maple Leafs Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

Penguins’ General Manager Jim Rutherford has an interesting offseason upcoming, but it isn’t because he has a lot of unrestricted free agents to sign. Rather, he has to come to terms with a few personnel decisions in his continued quest to bring another Stanley Cup to Pittsburgh, and weighing the options and finding the hidden possibilities of those decisions bring forth a plethora of roster questions Pittsburgh has to answer.

I narrowed my long list down to what I think are the five most important questions Rutherford needs to focus on. This wasn’t easy, and I’ll definitely pose my other queries later on, but here’s the final draft:

What’s to become of Conor Sheary?

During the 2017 offseason, Sheary, a then-restricted free agent, ended up inking a $3 million deal — one that was actually worthwhile when you consider how well he played in the 2016-17 postseason. He actually did file for arbitration prior to that, but he and Jim Rutherford struck a deal before those discussions needed to happen. Coming off a great postseason in the Penguins’ 2016 Cup run, Sheary’s numbers were pretty fantastic for a young winger the folllowing year, with 53 points (23 goals, 30 assists) to his credit in his first full regular season and seven points (two goals, five assists) in the playoffs.

Unfortunately, he hit a pretty substantial wall in 2017-18, one that was so cumbersome, media and fans alike were questioning if the $3 million extension was a huge mistake. I’ve been a Sheary fan since day one, and I’ve been known to defend him until I’m blue in the face, but even I’m starting to lose faith in what’s now going to be the four-year winger’s abilities. He only had 30 points (18 goals, 12 assists) for a “top-six” forward this past season and put up a measly two points in the playoffs — neither of which were goals.

Given his experience, past performances, and the size of his contract, he should’ve been scoring a heck of a lot more than that, even in a secondary role. A demotion to the bottom-six by Mike Sullivan not long after was his fate after failing to produce. Not to mention Sheary’s struggles to stay upright on his skates, pucks constantly clunking off his stick paddle when he tried to accept passes, and a vehemently frustrating inability to bury scoring chances in the slot.

If Sheary doesn’t start earning his spot and proving the contract he signed was a smart one for this organization, I really think we could see the end of him in a Penguins uniform. We could even see him gone by the start of next season.

Is a buy out of Matt Hunwick in the cards for Pittsburgh?

Oh, Matt Hunwick. This signing just looks worse and worse the more it’s brought up, and the only way Rutherford can seriously correct it is if we see him shipped off to a different team. The problem, however, is two-fold: 1. What evidence can the Penguins’ GM give to potential suitors that he’s worth their money?, and 2. Who would even want him?

It still blows my mind that this 32-year-old defenseman, who recorded just 10 points (four goals, six assists) all season, managed a three-year $2.25 million deal with Pittsburgh and didn’t see a single postseason face-off not in a suit from the press box. He didn’t play a single game and was a healthy stretch for the majority of the latter half of the season, and this is on a team that was desperate for defensive depth down the stretch. Trying to defend this decision is impossible. The coaching staff didn’t trust him at all, and Chad Ruhwedel beat him out for a bottom-pairing spot. Yeah, Chad Ruhwedel.

I can’t see the Penguins cutting their losses and eating his contract for the next two years while slotting him into the lineup as their No. 7 guy. It’s too big of a commitment for a player who can’t even crack the lineup. Hopefully a buy out isn’t the only option Rutherford has by the end of the summer and another team can find a place for him. Otherwise, this deal could haunt Pittsburgh for far longer than it’d like.

Will Daniel Sprong see a permanent NHL roster spot with the Penguins in 2018-19?

You knew this one was coming. How should the Penguins continue to utilize Sprong inside the organization if he’s been nothing but impressive for the entire previous season? I mean, the Dutch prospect tallied 32 goals in the AHL, was an All-Star, and found himself called up for a handful of NHL games. Is there an official promotion to the big leagues in 2018-19 in Sprong’s future?

Of course, there have been numerous reports about his lack of maturity, bad attitude, play away from the puck, and, wait for it, less than par defensive execution, but ] what more does the rookie have to learn down in the AHL when he’s done nothing but scorch the backs of each of his opponent’s cages with his deadly shot? Is he capable of more development to tie off loose ends from his aforementioned list of weaknesses, or will this upcoming season with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton just hinder a really incredible offensive player from the Penguins roster?

Sprong is itching to make the permanent jump to the NHL, there’s no doubt about that. Earning a spot in the Penguins’ camp this summer is probably first on his list of priorities, and given that he’s failed to stay up in the lineup this past season and show off his worthiness, even with tons of injuries to Pittsburgh’s core starters in the latter half of the season, the coaching staff might not think he fits their style, prompting them to leave him down in the minors.

If it is in fact that, could Rutherford be thinking of including the sniper in a trade deal to bring in some defensive talent? Well, maybe. Packaging his level of skill would definitely make any GM in the league drool, but Sprong has gone on record to say he loves playing in the Pittsburgh organization, so who knows how that’ll go over. I’d imagine he’d not take it well.

How can the Penguins solve their defensive depth issues?

It is true that Pittsburgh’s top-six defensemen are returning next season (if they re-sign pending RFA Jamie Oleksiak, that is), so maybe the phrasing of that question was a little harsh. However, the defensive miscues in the second round of the playoffs — and honestly during the entire regular season — were on full display and mainly responsible for the Penguins getting beat in three of the six close games against the Capitals.

Matt Hunwick is worthless, Chad Ruhwedel isn’t great, Jamie Oleksiak is slow to control gaps, and Kris Letang hasn’t seemed right since his neck surgery. Hopefully Hunwick is gone before next season and Rutherford can find a diamond in the rough defenseman to take over for Ruhwedel — maybe even bounce to the top-six. If Pittsburgh re-signs Oleksiak, gelling with teammates in camp will really bode well for him, as he’s been impressive for the short time he’s been in Pittsburgh. And then there’s Letang, who I fully expect to have a rebound year after some much-needed rest.

The defensive problems seriously need to be fixed if the Penguins want to make a further run into next year’s playoffs and try for another Cup win, and adding a couple guys to the depth chart through trades or the Draft with do that. Pittsburgh's aggressive forecheck needs a reliable defense behind it, otherwise we’ll have 80-plus games of constant odd-man rushes and breakaways destroying Matt Murray again, and that’s not ideal.

How should Rutherford handle Bryan Rust's future, and will he see arbitration this summer?

If you would’ve told me before writing this post that Bryan Rust only makes $625,000 a year, I’d would’ve laughed in your face. But folks, Rust’s contract is exactly that, and I’m shocked. What a steal for a solid forward, and what a beautiful job by Rutherford to make a deal like this.

Anyway, Rust is one of the five upcoming RFA’s Rutherford has to decide what to do with, and re-signing him is probably high up on the GM’s list. Rust’s current contract will undoubtedly shoot up in his next deal, especially considering Sheary, as we discussed earlier, managed to land $3 million in his negotiations last summer.

Rust has 181 NHL games under his belt and has racked up 33 goals and 46 assists for a total of 79 points. His even-strength metrics are fantastic, with a career Corsi For of 53.1% and a career Fenwick For of 53.4%. This past season, the fourth-year winger played in 69 games and put up 38 points (13 goals and 25 assists). Rust has steadily improved each season and is on pace to record 50-60 points in his fifth year in the NHL. He’s a brilliant secondary scoring option and has always showed up in big games. It’s also important to note that Rust is a right-handed winger, and the Penguins really enjoy having his sort of handedness in the lineup.

Basically, my summary of Rust is this: pay the man.

(Contract information is courtesy of Cap Friendly)