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What is Marcus Pettersson’s upside?

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If the Pittsburgh Penguins want to sign him to a long-term contract extension they need to be sure he can be a top-four defender, and he just might be able to.

NHL: Calgary Flames at Pittsburgh Penguins Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

With the start of the 2019-20 NHL season just a couple of months away Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford still has a little bit of work to do to complete his roster. The biggest move will be figuring out a way to re-sign restricted free agent defender Marcus Pettersson and making the necessary salary cap space to get him signed.

It seems that the Penguins’ intention is to sign Pettersson to a long-term contract which would almost certainly give him a significant pay raise from his entry-level contract. It is going to be an interesting situation to watch unfold because Pettersson is still somewhat of a mystery when it comes to what he is as a player and what he could be in the future.

He showed some signs of being a potential top-four defender this past season, but also had some stretches where he was just kind of ordinary. Honestly that is probably to be expected with a 22-year-old defender that had only played 22 NHL games before this season.

That also makes a long-term contract a bit of a risk.

If Pettersson develops the way you hope he can, then the contract probably turns out to be a steal, something the Penguins could really use in the future given their long-term salary cap outlook.

If he doesn’t, then the team runs the risk of being stuck with another long-term contract for a player that is not a part of their core. That is something the Penguins already have too many of.

What I tried to do was find recent players that have had seasons similar to Pettersson’s 2018-19 and how they developed after that.

The criteria I searched for: Age 22, playing in their second season in the NHL (technically Pettersson was considered a “rookie” this season, but he still played in the NHL for a quarter of the 2017-18 season ... it is his second season in the league), played at least 1,200 minutes, and finished with at least 18 even-strength points and a 50 percent Corsi Percentage. This went back as far as the 2007-08 season and it produced the following list of names:

Brady Skjei
Vince Dunn
Jaccob Slavin
Matt Niskanen
Shayne Gostisbehere
Jason Demers
Marcus Pettersson

This is hardly an exact science here and definitely cherry-picking some numbers (again, just wanted to find players similar to what Pettersson did this past season) but that is definitely an interesting list of names. Pretty much all of those players are either top-four defenders, have been top-four defenders, or are on their way to being top-four defenders.

Also working in Pettersson’s favor with the Penguins is that he is probably going to have every opportunity to develop into that role.

Justin Schultz is a free agent after this season and probably will not be re-signed.

Jack Johnson and Erik Gudbranson should only be third-pairing defenders and, ideally, will be the ones that eventually get moved.

Outside of Calen Addison and Pierre-Olivier Joseph, acquired in the Phil Kessel trade from the Arizona Coyotes, there also is not any young defenders in the organization that really have a chance to take a big step forward in the coming seasons.

The door is definitely wide open for Pettersson, and his first full season in the NHL was definitely encouraging. There is at least some sign and precedent that a player like him could very easily turn into a reliable player. The Penguins just have to make sure they are close to 100 percent convinced that he will become that player before they commit long-term. Signing depth players to long-term contracts is a bad path and gets teams like the Penguins (Stanley Cup contenders that spend all the way to the salary cap) in trouble when it comes to maximizing their ability to compete for a Stanley Cup.