After recently looking at the ten best (and ten worst) trades that the Pittsburgh Penguins have made in the 2010’s, the natural next ask would be...what about free agent signings?
Really, the Pens have been largely inactive on July 1st, the annual day when NHL teams bend over backwards to hand out big money and term to players who are bound to disappoint. This is more a function of the way the team is built, rather than being super-savvy. Pittsburgh has invested a ton of their salary cap space on their core players like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and Marc-Andre Fleury at the early part of the decade and these few players were taking up the majority of the cap. So they didn’t have the room to often swing for big free agent pickups.
Which perhaps makes the times the Pens did delve into the free agents waters all the more frustrating. Most 4-5-6 year deals given to non-franchise-centerpiece type players ends in headaches and are probably best avoided.
For our purposes here, we’re only going to judge open market, unrestricted free agent signings. So Ray Shero signing Chris Kunitz or Pascal Dupuis while they still had term on their contracts isn’t going to count here. Ditto the extensions to Crosby and Malkin and Letang, while surely worthy of some of the best and most valuable contracts the team has signed, they didn’t technically sign them as “free agents”, so for this exercise it wasn’t considered.
The five best Pens’ contracts of the decade
#5 Steve Downie: July 2nd 2014, one year, $1,000,000
This is a minor signing that really just amuses me, but Downie has one of the funniest (and perhaps most forgotten gems) type of seasons of the past 5-10 years with the Pens. 72 games, 14 goals, 14 assists, 28 points, 237 PIMs.
Downie was actually a pretty useful player between the whistles. Once scored 22 goals and 46 points in a season with Rick Tocchet in Tampa. That was the idea and selling point- Tocchet as assistant coach would reign in the wild man, keep him focused, and Downie would be a positive contributor for the Pens.
It, um, sort of worked. Downie had moments of being a good, physical winger. He also was a barely hinged madman (and I say that lovingly with all due respect) who flipped out over the most minor of issues and had no bedside manner around referees — causing him to often ring up totally avoidable misconduct penalties because of his crazed actions.
Steve Downie was a unique cat, and I don’t think you’ll see another quite like him in a very long time.
#4 Blake Comeau: July 1 2014, one year, $700,000
Blake Comeau’s career was slumping and at a cross-roads when he came to Pittsburgh on a league minimum deal. Comeau only scored 16 total goals in the prior three seasons from 2011-13 (177 games), and he was starting to bounce around jumping for three different teams, with his reputation diminishing after each unsuccessful stop.
Then, Evgeni Malkin helped breathe life and turn Comeau’s career around. Comeau matched his prior three seasons, scoring 16 goals and adding 31 for Pittsburgh in 2014-15 alone, a rare bright spot in the otherwise very forgettable Mike Johnston era. That strong season set Comeau up to sign a three year, $2.4 million annual salary and a pretty rare example of a player the Pens took a flyer on that actually had something left in the tank (the list is littered with names like Jay McKee and Mike Comrie).
#3 Paul Martin: July 1 2010, five years $25,000,000 ($5.0m annually), modified no trade clause
In the summer of 2010, the Pens had a major problem. Sergei Gonchar, their best defenseman at the time and huge factor in the 2009 Stanley Cup, was an impending free agent. Gonchar, 36, was seeking the security of a three-year contract. The Pens, understandably, didn’t want to commit term to a defenseman for his age 36-38 seasons at a high salary. The differences led to Gonchar floating away in free agency when he found a team in Ottawa that was willing to give him a three year contract (at a $5.5 million annual salary).
That left a big hole in Pittsburgh, which they filled quickly by signing Martin to not-so-coincidentally the exact same contract (5 years x $5.0m per year) that Gonchar had signed in 2005.
Martin wasn’t as flashy as Gonchar, but this contract was for his age 29-34 seasons, with the age being a huge factor. As a defensive defenseman Martin was in his prime early in the deal and his gap control, stick positioning, outlet passing and all-around calm, cool play was a big boost for an uptempo Pens team that needed a reliable player who could make subtle plays and smart decisions all over the ice to help support the team.
#2 Zach Aston-Reese, March 14 2017: two seasons, $1,850,000 ($925,000 annual)
Conor Sheary, July 1 2015: two seasons, $1,850,000 ($925,000 annual)
Similar concept here, so we’ll group Aston-Reese and Sheary together. Both were undrafted college free agent additions for the Pens, a nice way to round out the talent of the team with players that slipped through the cracks but ended up developing at the NCAA level into solid pro prospects.
Sheary was probably the more impactful of the two, certainly so immediately considering on year one of his entry level contract (2015-16) ended with a Stanley Cup Final OT goal and eventual championship on the first line with Sidney Crosby. Then in 2016-17, also still on a bargain contract, Sheary scored 53 points and helped the team win a second Stanley Cup in a row. He fell out of favor and was eventually shipped off, but doubtlessly was a great addition and development from an AHL contract in in 2014-15 all the way up to the league’s highest level.
Aston-Reese may end up being a longer-lasting impact for the team as an energy line winger who can PK pretty well and chip in a bit offensively. His signing was a great recruitment by Bill Guerin, Jim Rutherford and the rest of the organization.
Success stories like Sheary and Aston-Reese are also very beneficial since it proves to the next college or European FA that it’s a good idea to sign with Pittsburgh. They will allow a quick path to the NHL, and probably give you time with Crosby/Malkin at some point. That’s made the Pens a very high-end destination for these players.
#1 Matt Cullen, August 6 2015, one year $800,000
As the summer of 2015 wore on, the 38-year old Cullen remained unsigned and contemplating retirement as there wasn’t much interest in him. His old friend from Carolina, Jim Rutherford, however made the call. It worked out exceptionally well in Pittsburgh where Cullen did a bit of everything. He still had the legs and speed to be a useful player in 2015-16 and was valuable as a fourth line center, or playing up on a third line if there were injuries.
Cullen excelled in faceoffs and brought a strong veteran presence that a fairly young team (think: Sheary, Bryan Rust, Tom Kuhnhackl, many of them linemates’ of Cullen’s at some point) needed and fed off of.
It was a great combination and made the Pens a lot better and deeper. What once was a fourth line filled with plugs and useless players at the beginning of the decade became a positive weapon for the Pens to deploy with players like Cullen and Rust. The chemistry mixed right and Cullen signing with Pittsburgh was a big part in why the team got back to Stanley Cup glory. For no risk at all, it was a tremendous signing that couldn’t have worked out any better for the player or the team.
The five worst Pens’ contracts of the decade
Where there is good, there is also bad where contracts didn’t quite work out as hoped. Let’s just dive right in.
#5 Craig Adams: July 5 2013, $700,000 annual, two years, 35+ contract
I know what you’re thinking about the qualifications of signing a free agent, but Adams did sign this contract the day free agency opened in 2013. He was free, or free enough. What made this contract bad wasn’t really the money, it was the term. Adams, then 36, signing for two years as a replacement level player, or possibly less than that, in no way should have been gifted the security of paying for his age-37 season a year ahead of time. And as a multi-year 35+ contract, even if Adams was injured or retired, the salary cap hit still would have counted against the team’s salary cap.
It turned out not working out, as Adams wasn’t very good in either season and helped drag down bad fourth lines in Pittsburgh in 2014 and 2015. Then they let him go, improved the fourth line with better players and won the Stanley Cup the next two seasons. Coincidence? Yeah, probably partially, but also not entirely..
#4 Antti Niemi, July 1st 2017, one year, $700,000
Antti Niemi? More like Anti-stopping the puck. After posting a .892 save% in 37 games in 2016-17 with the Dallas Stars, the Penguins for some reason decided on giving Niemi a shot at redemption as Matt Murray’s backup. This was probably a no-win situation for Niemi, since he was replacing fan-favorite and franchise legend Marc-Andre Fleury as the other goalie.
This contract wasn’t bad in terms of costing the team, it was for league minimum and the Pens ended up waiving Niemi and he was claimed by Florida. And of course, since goalies are unpredictable, Niemi ended up that season in Montreal and ended up with a .929 save% in 19 games there.
But his short-lived time in Pittsburgh was so poor for on-ice performance, it’s got to end up on any “worst of” list.
Just look at how his Pens’ career went:
Start 1 @Chicago: loss, lasted 9:16, gave up 4 goals on 13 shots (.692 save%, 25.90 GAA), pulled from game
Start 2 @Tampa: loss, stopped 29 of 34 shots (.853 save%, 5.10 GAA)
Start 3 @Tampa: loss, stopped 25/31, (.781 save%, 7.00 GAA)
And that was it. The team did not play very well in front of him, but Niemi also was not providing NHL level goaltending. It was almost comically bad and at least mercifully was a very short experiment.
#3 Matt Hunwick July 1st 2017, three years, $2,250,000 annual salary
The Pens were seeking a veteran defensive defenseman. That usually doesn’t end well on the first day of free agency! Hunwick didn’t fit in with Mike Sullivan’s system, and then he got a concussion and never really seemed to fit in at all, retching through one injury-filled season in Pittsburgh. The Pens had to “fix” the mistake of this bad player/bad contract combo by saddling a useful player with him in Conor Sheary to clear this salary off the books. And while that at least could have been a win to just move on, it ended up clearing the salary cap room to make yet another mistake when they turned around and gave that savings to....
#2 Jack Johnson, July 1 2018, five years, $3,250,000 annually
This one has been pummeled into dust, but yeah, the Pens really did sign a 31-year old defenseman to a five year contract, who ended up the prior seasons as a healthy scratch for Columbus — COLUMBUS! Not the juggernaut 1977 Canadiens — Columbus!
Predictably, for a player with a career’s worth of bad metrics, it hasn’t been great. Ironically enough, every tenant a defensive Jim Rutherford tried to sell folks on in the opening press conference has proven laughably false; that Johnson could play left side or right side, could help reduce the minutes Letang would need to play, could help the penalty kill or power play, had great outlet passing ability, and that “he knew” why Johnson was a healthy scratch and it wasn’t because of his play.
That didn’t end well, Johnson was a healthy scratch by Game 1 of the playoffs in Pittsburgh and on the trading block last summer. Pretty much everything Rutherford stumped for backfired. Johnson has been better in 2019-20 (though his metrics still rank among the worst on the team), so we’ll see how much he can play his way off the list, but at almost age-33, the future is probably going to be less good as time goes on and the Pens find a way to shed the bad contract.
#1 Rob Scuderi, July 5, 2013, four years, $3,375,000 per year, eight-team no trade clause
”If I only want to offer a guy a two-year contract, he’s going to go to the next team for a four-year contract,” Ray Shero said on the day he signed a 34-year old Rob Scuderi to a four year contract. “We know Rob Scuderi. If I’m going to pass on Rob Scuderi because I’m a little worried about what he’s going to be like when he’s 38, I’m not going to get him.”
The lesson to learn on Day 1 of free agency is sometimes it’s better “to not get him”, especially when you’re locking up a player for his mid/late 30’s who isn’t a particularly good skater or puck-handler. Also, GM’s always think the fitness, training and ability to take the aging gracefully is all going to be fine on signing day when they give these veterans lengthy contracts, but that rarely happens in actuality.
Shero and the Pens signed Scuderi in 2013, to try and recapture what left when Scuderi left in 2009. Unfortunately, four years had gone by. If Shero wanted to sign Scuderi, he should have found a way to move salaries and do it in 2009. Instead, Shero brought Scuderi back four years later with that much more wear and tear. Not uncoincidentally, less than a year later Shero was out of a job.