Josh Yohe at The Athletic offered his suggestions for the Pittsburgh Penguins offseason and it was such a good idea, well, it’s only natural to put a spin on it. Everyone has a million ideas and takes on how to proceed, here is what advice we would offer.
#1 Revamp the coaching staff
Relax, Mike Sullivan isn’t going anywhere. But perhaps it’s time to freshen up the other voices on the staff and for the team. Jacques Martin has been around in Pittsburgh for three different head coaches and since 2013. He didn’t get the nods for the head coach job in Buffalo or Ottawa, should he be back in Pittsburgh? Would a change just for the sake of getting a fresh face in be helpful?
Mark Recchi is a great guy and franchise icon, but is he a right fit and properly utilized as an assistant coach? The power play gave up a ton of goals (not his fault) but their slingshot zone entries STINK and there’s no new wrinkles or appear to be any value adds by Recchi translating through.
Toronto today announced shuffling AC Jim Hiller out and Paul McFarland in, so there’s no reason to stand on ceremony. Might as well seek upgrades and make the changes now for one or both assistant coaches.
#2 No dumb trades
Gretz’s early offseason advice still looks best: just don’t do anything dumb. What’s dumb? Moving a 27 minute a night right handed defenseman who plays top competition, still tilts the ice to the tune of 55% Corsi For percentage and one who helps the Pens outscore the competition by a significant amount is petty dumb. To attempt to think it will improve the team is not logical.
Ditto moving a franchise center who still ranked highly in the league in Points/60 in a down an inconsistent year, especially when he has a full no trade clause and has shown no signs of being interested in leaving Pittsburgh.
#3 And then there’s Phil
But where does that leave Phil Kessel? It seems almost certain in reality he will be traded this summer, but is it the right thing to do?
Perhaps to freshen the locker room and acquiesce to Sullivan and make the team more cohesive, uniform and easier to coach; perhaps moving on without Kessel would be the direction this team wants to go. But for survival’s sake as a top-end team, the Pens darn well better get this right, while dealing with a 23-team no trade clause that will block most options.
Because just as when the Pens traded for Kessel in 2015 they won the next two Stanley Cups, how the deal goes down to trade him away will likely shape whether they have any shot to win a future one in the near future.
Minnesota appears to be the key. We know in 2015 it wasn’t on his blocked list. We know they have a winger in Jason Zucker that recently almost traded and probably will soon. Michael Russo, also of The Athletic, points out the Wild have ownership pressure to make the playoffs, and also a lack of quality right wingers.
Opportunity could be flashing. A Russo suggests in his article, can the Pens’ unload Jack Johnson to Minny? Perhaps for with Kessel for Zucker and a draft pick or prospect? Doing that means saving $4.55 million on the salary cap and solving the massive issue of Jack Johnson’s subpar play hurting the team.
If the Pens get the Phil trade right, they will be in pretty good shape moving forward. If they bungle it, they will weaken the team mightily, and perhaps irreversibly in the Sidney Crosby era. Sounds dramatic, but the importance of moving a key player is bound to have massive positive or negative repercussions.
#4 Give Maatta a chance
The past two summers the Pens have made minor but meaningful splashes on July 1, the start of free agency. They’ve added a defenseman each year. First it was Matt Hunwick in 2017, then Johnson last summer. Both were huge net-negatives for on-ice performance and the team struggled mightily.
This year, why don’t we not go shopping in the free agent bin for anything of meaning, as clearly some aspects of evaluation and valuation are going wrong.
Most assume Olli Maatta is done in Pittsburgh, but why? If the team does find a way to drop Johnson after one year, much like they dropped Hunwick after one year, it wouldn’t make sense to deal Maatta too.
It clears space but also opens a hole on the depth chart that the manager really can’t be trusted to fill right now.
Maatta had a dreadful 2018-19, but most of it was spent with replacement or sub-replacement level partners like Johnson and Juuso Riikola. Time and again, we’ve seen Maatta play well when he has a partner strong enough to support him (think Letang or Matt Niskanen) and we’ve seen Maatta sink when he plays with a weak partner.
So why not give Maatta a strong partner like Justin Schultz and see how it goes? It seems like Maatta isn’t young since he’s been around a while, but he’s less than two years older than Marcus Pettersson.
#5 Find a mid-level free agent that can help
Assuming Kessel can be bundled with Johnson (or Maatta), there will be some money for a free agent.
Joonas Donskoi is coming off a 37 point season in San Jose even though he played 13 minutes a night, similarly Brett Connolly just scored 22 goals and 46 points in not a huge role in Washington. Ryan Dzingel wasn’t a fit in Columbus but still had a career-high 56 points. Richard Panik wasn’t much a factor in Arizona last year but scored 22g/44p in 2016-17 with Chicago on a more talented team.
All those players are 27-28 years old and, much like the Pens current core, ought to have a few more good years in them. The big flashy names of this free agency are outside of Pittsburgh’s reach due to the cap. But find a guy who can play left wing for Malkin and score 20g/40p next year. That would add a lot to the top-9 forward group in Pittsburgh.
#6 Sign Matt Murray
Should be a fairly drama-free item to take off the checklist this summer with Murray coming in around or a bit under known comparables like John Gibson and Connor Hellebuyck. An easier item to check off and move on with.
#7 Develop a plan for Justin Schultz
With 2019-20 the last year before free agency for Justin Schultz, how will the team manage it? From Brooks Orpik to Matt Niskanen to Paul Martin to numerous others, the Pens have been content to allow top-4 defensemen play out the last year of their contracts and figure it out down the line. Content to lose them for nothing with salary cap constraints.
Does this apply for Schultz? The team has nothing to replace him with, and right handed puck moving defensemen in their 20’s don’t exactly grow on trees.
Not saying the Pens need to re-sign him now, and the player may not want to. But they need to pre-plan and determine what path they wish to take for him down the line in the next 12 months.