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What’s at stake for Penguins players entering contract years?

Pittsburgh Penguins v Arizona Coyotes Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

On Monday we looked at what is at stake for Penguins winger Jake Guentzel this season (read it here!) as he plays out the final year of his entry-level contract. It’s a big opportunity for him to take a big step forward in his development, cement himself as a long-term core building block, and try to play for a long-term deal. He is also an extremely valuable element of this year’s team.

He is not the only player on the roster that has a lot to play for this season contractually as the Penguins have three prominent forwards that will be eligible for unrestricted free agency after this season.

Let’s take a closer look at each of them because they are probably not going to be able to keep all three of them.

Carl Hagelin

Current salary: $4 million per season

Age: 30

If I had to guess, I would suspect that if the Penguins wanted to keep any of these three beyond this season Hagelin might be the one they make the biggest run at.

He plays a position they are not particularly deep at, he fits their style of play, and he does almost everything really well on the ice. Simply put: He’s a really good player.

The risks: Age, and the fact that the one thing he doesn’t do well is put the puck in the net, and if you’re going to continue to pay a player upwards of $4-5 million into their 30s you probably want it to be someone that scores goals. Hagelin, for all of his strengths, is the king of the “just missed” or “oh so close” play, seemingly getting at least two breakaways or creating a handful of odd-man rushes per week ... only to not get anything out of them.

I don’t mean that as a knock on him — that’s just the difference between a really good middle-six player and a superstar. Because if he did have the finishing ability to score on all of those chances he creates he would probably be an $8 million per year player and already be out of the team’s price range under the salary cap.

He is going to be a good defensive player, he is going to create havoc at times with his speed, he is going to help create chances, and he is probably going to score 12-15 goals with 30-35 points, which is what he has done pretty much every year in the league. Looking at comparable players in terms of his age, salary, and he is probably a $3.5-$4.5 million player if he can maintain that same level of play. Given how little NHL depth the Penguins have at that spot and the lack of realistic free agent options next summer it might be worth paying.

Derick Brassard

Current Salary: $5 million (Penguins only pay $3 million)

Age: 31

Forget something to prove in a contract-year status, Brassard has a lot to play for because it feels like he still has something to prove after the huge price the Penguins paid to get him at the trade deadline out of Ottawa (and for involving Vegas to basically launder $2 million of his salary). It was a ton of moving parts and a lot of assets (and good assets!) moving in the other direction. Was it worth it?

He was supposed to be the missing piece in the Penguins’ quest for a three-peat, helping them get back the center depth they had lost over the previous summer to free agency. But his first impression with the team probably didn’t win over too many people.

The reception was probably a little but unfair because expectations were immediately off the charts and probably completely unreasonable. If you look at Brassard’s actual on-ice production ... he wasn’t bad with the Penguins last season, even before you take into account he was clearly playing through an injury in the playoffs. Including regular season and playoffs he finished the 2017-18 season in Pittsburgh with four goals and eight assists in 26 games. Over an 82-game season that’s a pace for around 13 goals and 37 points.

Do you know what Nick Bonino averaged over 82 games during his time in Pittsburgh? He averaged 15 goals and 37 points. If there’s a difference between the two it’s that Bonino might have been a better defensive player, and that definitely matters. But I also don’t think we’ve seen Brassard at his best and he has a lot more to offer offensively.

I’m a little skeptical of the (potential) idea to move him to wing because it not only weakens your center depth, but it also defeats the very purpose of the trade for him, which was to give your team better depth down the middle, which has been this team’s calling card when it has won championships. You’re a better team with Crosby-Malkin-Brassard-Sheahan down the middle than you are with Brassard in a top-six role, and Sheahan-Matt Cullen/Grant in your third-and fourth-line center spots.

All of this said, I expect Brassard, when healthy and getting a full season to play in Pittsburgh, to be better than he showed in his initial debut with the team.

I just don’t know how that translates into a long-term spot because right now the Penguins are getting him at a bargain price of $3 million per season. If he plays like he has throughout his career he is not going to come that cheaply on a new deal, and I’m not sure if the Penguins are willing to go that much or for that long on their third-line center spot. I think they could find a way to make it work, but it seems to be a long-shot.

Riley Sheahan

Current Salary: $2.1 million

Age: 26

Sheahan was a great buy-low candidate that the Penguins took a chance on early in the 2017-18 season when they were still trying to figure out their center depth following the free agency departures of Bonino and Cullen. At the time, he was mired in an absolutely baffling goal-scoring drought that had seen him score just two goals over his previous 93 NHL games. Considering that the two goals he did score came in the same game that meant he went goal-less in a staggering 92 of those games. For a player that had at least averaged double-digit goals throughout his career it was just ... for lack of a better word ... insane.

So the Penguins got him for next to nothing and gave him a shot.

Upon his arrival in Pittsburgh the goal drought continued for another 11 games, and after finally snapping out of it, went eight more without finding the back of the net. At some point you had to think that his shooting luck was going to change. And it did. He finished the season with 11 goals over the remaining 62 regular season games, which was right in line with what he had done throughout his career prior to that season of goal-scoring hell.

That is the player that Riley Sheahan is, and it is not bad.

Personally, I think he is a perfect fourth-line center for this team and once he was put on that line last season it finally, for the first time all year, started to show some signs of life. He is not going to hurt you too much defensively, he can chip in some offense, and if needed would not be out of place higher up in the lineup — you probably just do not want to have to rely on him to be there consistently over the long-haul. The problem: If he returns to being a 15-goal player he might price himself out of that spot on the open market.