Maybe it’s just me, but it still seems like the year 2020 is a long time away — like some mythical number that is far on the horizon. But it’s like 17 months away! We’re getting old, you guys.
Anyway, since it’s fun to project long-term, it brought a thought on: what will the Pittsburgh Penguins look like for the start of the 2020-21 season? It’s tough to look that far out, because trades and free agency signings, that are impossible to predict at this point, will happen and change everything. There’s probably no way this outlook will look 75-percent correct by then. But, for now, let’s do the best we can and take a stab at it anyway, then discuss how the Penguins could look for the start of the 2020-21 season.
Jake Guentzel - Sidney Crosby - Daniel Sprong
Bryan Rust - Evgeni Malkin - Phil Kessel
? - Jordy Bellerive - Patric Hornqvist
Zach Aston-Reese - Teddy Blueger - ?
Brian Dumoulin / Kris Letang
Olli Maatta / ?
Jack Johnson / Jamie Oleksiak
We’ll project Sprong to make it big and stick. The Penguins will have to sign Guentzel next summer in 2019, but as a restricted free agent with no arbitration rights, it still should be a matter of when and not if Guentzel is back and most likely under contract by then.
Bryan Rust got a heavy investment of a $3.5 million a year salary, so we’ll say that he’s in the plans for a major role. And it’s only two seasons out, and he’ll still be young, so we might be seeing him in a Hagelin-type role as a speedy winger with good two-way ability that can help out a Malkin/Kessel line by opening up space and still be defensively responsible.
On the third line, we’re going pretty bold to put the young Bellerive (who will be 21-years-old at the start of the 2020-21 season) into a big role here. Hornqvist is still around by virtue of his contract. On the left side, the outlook seems less clear. With Hagelin a free agent next season and unlikely to return, plus Conor Sheary traded away and no real NHL upside prospects looming*, it appears Pittsburgh will need a trade or free agent addition here. It’s not the end of the world, but in a perfect one, the feeder system would be involved to have natural replacements. That’s not in place, but it can be worked around.
(*Maybe Filip Hallander plays well in the AHL in 2019-20 and is ready to graduate, but there’s so much variability and unknowns in prospect development that it’s difficult to project a current 18-year old will be NHL ready for a contending team in two seasons. It’s possible, but it’s also too hazy to see at this point with all the time and growth still needed)
The fourth line could go a bunch of different ways. Usually there’s a lot of turnover on these lower line roles, so perhaps ZAR or Blueger won’t even be with the organization any longer. But if they are, they should be about here. Luckily, at least there aren’t any bad long-term contracts at forward that will have an over-paid player slotting in here, which is always a plus.
Defensively, we’re slotting all five players still with contracts for 2020 to still be around, though it certainly wouldn’t be shocking to see some turnover here in the form of a trade in the interim. Justin Schultz will be a free agent in summer 2020, and it’s not definite the Penguins will have enough cap space to re-sign him. It surely seems uncertain at this point, so we’ll project him to have moved on at this point, though depending on circumstances, it’s certainly possible he could be re-signed. Regardless, you don’t see an entire blue line retained without some turnover, so this area is probably a position where a trade could shape the future if and/or when it happens.
In net, Murray will need a new contract for this 2020 season, but he’s also a restricted free agent, and it makes a lot of sense that he would be back. Jarry is also in the mix, and his youth and ability project him to still be around at this point too, though he too could be a trade candidate without playing well between now and 2020.
One other interesting question is who will be leading the Penguins’ front office for this season? In two years, general manager Jim Rutherford will be 71-years-old. While it may seem counter-intuitive to not “leave at the top,” more Stanley Cup success in the next two seasons may inspire him to continue going for more. If Mike Sullivan is still around for this campaign, he’ll join Dan Bylsma as the only two coaches to start and finish five consecutive seasons in Pittsburgh. And most feel Bylsma was retained a year or two too long. As of now, the leadership for 2020-21 seems up in the air, or at least partially unclear, particularly Rutherford’s status. It’s not inconceivable that 2020-21 could be the first year of a Bill Guerin regime.
...Oh yeah, and there could be a lockout to start this season, depending on how negotiations and posturing of the CBA goes. So there’s always that. If a lockout happens, judging on the prior lockouts, the teams have been able to buy out a contract penalty-free to the salary cap. One would think that could spell the end of Jack Johnson, or maybe even Hornqvist, depending on how these next two years go. That would be a major shift in team composition as well.
Either way, the long-term contracts of the Penguins make them a relatively stable organization. Guys like Crosby, Malkin, Letang and really now Maatta, Dumoulin, Hornqvist and Kessel, have been around for a while. And, barring a trade, all will still be on the team. That’s what makes this outlook have a bit of confidence around it; Pittsburgh has been stable.
Come 2022 or beyond, the landscape of the team may look very different, considering only Crosby, Dumoulin, Hornqvist, and Johnson are under contract for that season (with Johnson’s contract being heavily favorable for a trade and/or buyout by that point).
I suppose the bottom line is that player movement can be very fast in the NHL, and the Penguins’ core players who have been around for a while still should be on the team for the next few seasons. Naturally, of course, everything comes to an end at some point. Pittsburgh has had a truly golden era in the Crosby/Malkin days, and that should continue through 2020 and beyond, but maybe not too much further. So, as always, enjoy the good times and top-level talent now while it lasts.