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Penguins leave an incomplete on offseason to-do list

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How did the Penguins do this offseason? Still feels incomplete

Winnipeg Jets v Pittsburgh Penguins

Training camp officially kicks off tomorrow, if you can believe it we’ve finally made it through a long, hot summer. With this milestone finally here, why not look back to May and check out the Pensburgh Offseason Checklist and look at the progress the Penguins did or didn’t make as the summer unfolded.

#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....

Mark Recchi is a great guy and franchise icon, but is he a right fit and properly utilized as an assistant coach?

No changes were made to the NHL coaching staff. Jacques Martin did interview for the vacant Buffalo and Ottawa head coaching job over the offseason, but the 69-year old bench boss always seemed an uninspired choice in this day and age and probably wasn’t a strong contender for either position, so he will return to the Penguins. No changes were made with Mark Recchi who also will be back.

Organizationally the two big changes were the loss of assistant general manager Bill Guerin, who flew the coup to take a promotion in Minnesota and the Wilkes-Barre Pens poaching current Calder Cup winning coach Mike Velucci from Charlotte. The latter move feels like it could have longer term implications considering Velucci has said his goal is to be an NHL head coach, and he has a long and fruitful relationship with Jim Rutherford. If you’re Mike Sullivan you’re probably not super-concerned about that, and he’s in the business of winning after all, but it’s still an eyebrow-raiser that a rising star that’s joined the organization.

It’s probably not the biggest deal that the Penguins will have continuity on their coaching staff, but for a team bounced in a first round sweep one would sure have thought that this could have been an avenue to inject some fresh blood or ideas into the team via new personalities behind the bench with their assistants. But that wasn’t a route that Pittsburgh elected to take this summer.

#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.

By “dumb trades” at this point we were scrambling to hopefully avoid watching Jim Rutherford put the Penguins in the proverbial ditch after his public comments that Sidney Crosby was the only player totally safe from trade availability.

And, as a baseline, Rutherford deserves praise for not making a huge unforced error that clearly ended the Pens’ championship window. He didn’t take a nightmare scenario to do the dumbest thing imaginable – like trade Kris Letang for a couple draft picks to open up cap space (ala Nashville and P.K. Subban) and then get in a bidding war for Tyler Myers. So on that low level, Pens fans can breathe a sigh of relief that the absolute worst case scenario was avoided.

For all the bluster (and perhaps temporarily hurt feelings) any suggestion of an Evgeni Malkin trade always felt very far-fetched an unrealistic, and wasn’t really explored too deeply as far as actually getting anywhere. Which is certainly for the best and not anything that the Pens manager really should be wasting any time or brain power on.

#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.

In the end the Pens decided moving on meant moving on from Phil, trading the talented winger for younger pieces in Alex Galchenyuk and Pierre-Olivier Joseph.

The return of the trade was always going to be critical, and strained given the NTC restraints. In that regard, Rutherford did well to bring back a top-six young winger with skill and a good prospect. But in the other regard, he still elected to jettison one of the top offensive wingers in hockey.

At best, the Pens can hope for intangibles like “improved chemistry” or “better personalities in the room”, that the “mix is changed up” or other platitudes that will translate into better performances.

Tangibly, they traded a player who scored 82 points last year (and 43 at 5-on-5 play) for a player who scored 41 points (just 18 of them at 5-on-5). It’s a step back in talent and performance, now the only question is just how much of it will be felt on the ice. Kessel ran the Pens’ power play, a group that was an NHL best 23.0% from 2015-19. Sending that out the door could make for some growing pains, but also opens up a chance for Galchenyuk or Jake Guentzel to shine more.

#4 Give Maatta a chance

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.

After Kessel blocked a trade to Minnesota that would have included hope of pawning off Jack Johnson on the Wild, Pittsburgh had to shift gears in the changes on defense that they actually could make. And that meant the trade of the two-time Stanley Cup winning Maatta, his poor 2018-19 season would be too much to overcome and stay with the Pens who do need to get performance out of that salary.

Unfortunately, even though Maatta was traded for a young forward who makes $3+ million less than he did, the team still ended up right at the salary cap before they were able to re-sign defenseman Marcus Pettersson, who presumably will take over the long-term second pair left defenseman spot that Maatta manned for many seasons. Whoops! The note of re-signing Pettersson was so off the radar and such a formality we didn’t even make it a point of emphasis for the offseason plan, yet the defenseman remains unsigned on the eve of camp and likely will have to take a short deal versus the long-term deal that both team and player would be signing with the appropriate space.

#5 Find a mid-level free agent that can help

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.

Well, um, the Pens found a mid-level free agent on July 1 st. But expecting them to target a skilled one who could score 20 goals/40 points was the disconnect in this exercise. Instead of seeking a player like Donskoi or Dzingel or Connolly, Pittsburgh went out and over-spent and over-termed hardworking forward Brandon Tanev. The money was about the same with all four players earning in the $3.25 -$3.5 million annual range. Somehow the Pens ended up giving a six year deal to the most replaceable skillset of the list, but that’s a different matter.

Tanev will add to the bottom-six and bring some grit, speed, shot-blocking. All good areas that can always use additions to an NHL roster. But in the context of a team that again just traded an 80 point player for a 40 point player, boy it sure would have been nice to recoup some of that missing skill. The Pens could have looked to invest the $3.5 million salary they gave to Tanev by going in a direction to add more of a “middle six” type of second-third line offensive winger, instead of a third-fourth line energy player. Instead, well, they didn’t.

#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.

Murray remains unsigned and is in the final year of his contract now (restricted free agent next summer). And the goalie market appears to be rapidly shifting with several players cashing in big. This isn’t the end of the world and possibly not even a controllable situation for Pens’ management, but it does require watching. One interesting note to keep in mind is how Rutherford has moved on his last two major goalie contract extensions. The Pens last re-signed Murray in October 2016 and Marc-Andre Fleury in October 2014, so don’t be surprised either if early in the season that Pittsburgh doesn’t get Murray inked up sometime soon when the regular season begins, that would be very much on-schedule for how Rutherford operates.

But if there’s no agreement reached and the negotiation goes to the summer, that might be just as well bring as it will surely provide added motivation for Murray to show out and really set a tone with his performance in the 2019-20 season to set himself up for the huge payday for next season, whenever the next contract may be signed.

#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.

The Justin Schultz situation will be an interesting one to watch unfold. Another right-handed defenseman in the last year of his contract named Justin (Faulk) is in the trade rumors to possibly be traded to Anaheim, who are very interested in extending his contract. Faulk’s interest in them (he has a partial no trade clause) is less certain at this time. Still, reported contract terms for Faulk were said to be in the $6.5-7.0 million range, which surely will have the attention of Schultz and his representatives. Schultz approaches free agency and as of now there’s not much of a path back to Pittsburgh considering the shape of their salary cap and heavy commitments on the books for years to come for marginal players like Johnson, Tanev and Erik Gudbranson.

Rutherford still has time, but he likely will have to remove one of those last three names by summer 2020 in order to have the space to make a competitive offer to Schultz. At this point it doesn’t seem like a very high priority item for the team, so this one can be shelved for a bit.

Pittsburgh has never been shy about keeping good players on the last year of their deal, knowing they likely won’t have the cap space to re-sign them and watching them skate off to greener pastures after taking one more shot at trying to win the Cup. That may well be the course they’re on with Schultz, barring some massive changes to their salary structure that will allow them the ability to make a significant offer to a right-handed, puck-moving, swift-skating defenseman in the prime of his earning power.