Every offseason, one of the major events everyone looks forward to is the beginning of the NHL free agency period. During a normal offseason, free agency begins at noon on July 1st, but of course, this year has been anything but normal.
Due to the season being paused and its conclusion pushed back because of COVID-19, the NHL was forced to delay free agency until after the Stanley Cup playoffs conclude in October. What day free agency will being is still TBD, but the NHL has outlined where free agency will fall in its offseason calendar.
Free agency for the 2020-21 NHL season will either be Oct. 9 or seven days following the Stanley Cup Final (as late as Oct. 11).— Chris Johnston (@reporterchris) July 10, 2020
That means we could have free agency open the same day as the first round of the entry draft is held.
Typically, the main focus of free agency are the unrestricted free agents who are without a contract and eligible to sign with any team. Lost in the shuffle are restricted free agents, who like UFAs are without a contract, but may only be eligible to negotiate with their current team if they are given a qualifying offer.
This offseason, Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford will have decisions to make on how to proceed with eight restricted free agents, including a few key players that may have to find a new home this offseason. What Rutherford decides to do with these players will go a long way in determining what the Penguins will look like next season.
The current soon-to-be restricted free agents on the Penguins roster are forwards Evan Rodrigues, Jared McCann, Anthony Angello, Sam Lafferty, Dominik Simon, defenseman Juuso Riikola, and goaltenders Matt Murray, and Tristan Jarry.
With the coronavirus delay wreaking havoc on the NHL’s financial situation, it has already been announced that the 2020-21 salary cap will remain flat at $81.5 million. Combine that with a report from last week stating that the Penguins may not be spending to the cap limit next season, it’s clear some of those listed above have played their final game in PIttsburgh.
Given how the NHL’s restricted free agency system works, it simply will not be possible for Rutherford to bring all eight of those guys back. Even in a normal offseason it’s unlikely all would be returning for another go around in the Steel City.
Before the tough decisions need to be made, let’s take a look at how it could all play out once the offseason gets underway in October.
These players seem to be in good standing with both Rutherford and head coach Mike Sullivan and look to be a part of the Penguins long term plans. Those plans could always change, but for right now, you can expect to see him in black and gold next season.
Tristan Jarry: This one probably seems obvious to most, but it appears Jarry is the goaltender of the future for the Penguins. He outperformed Murray in the summer camp and was the only player to looked like he cared in their Game 4 eliminating loss to the Canadiens. His price tag will jump next season, but they should be able to re-up him for reasonable term and money.
Jared McCann: It’s no secret McCann had a brutal second half that carried over into the playoffs, but I don’t foresee the Penguins throwing in the towel on him just yet. It was clear the front office and coaching staff loved him when he came over in the Brassard trade, and although he may not be the 3C they hoped for, he still looks to have a spot on the roster.
Dominik Simon: Call me crazy, I don’t care. Simon is a lightning rod for fans but he seems to still be in good graces with the coaching staff and having Sidney Crosby on your side doesn’t hurt either. His possession numbers remained terrific this year but the scoring still never showed up. Luckily for Simon, he comes cheap and Sidney Crosby likes him. That should be enough to get him a new deal with the Penguins.
On the Fence
For these players, their future in PIttsburgh could be determined by trades that open up roster spots or any of the guys above looking for greener pastures elsewhere. On the other hand, Rutherford could simply decides he just wants these guys to remain in Pittsburgh and gets a deal done one way or another.
Sam Lafferty: For a kid from Hollidaysburg, to say Lafferty was living the dream this season is an understatement. The Penguins could not have asked for more from a last round draft pick and the front office deserves credit for finding him and trusting his development. Given what he provided the Penguins this season, I almost grouped him with guys like McCann and Simon but the budget could be tight. Working in his favor will be the cheap price tag and likely short term on any new contract he gets.
Evan Rodrigues: Coming over from the Buffalo Sabres with Conor Sheary, Rodrigues only played in seven games before the season shutdown and did not appear in any postseason action. Working in Rodrigues’ favor as he looks to latch on with the Penguins moving forward was his solid play in those handful of games he played and his impressive performance filling in for Sidney Crosby during the summer camp. However, working against him in this situation is the fact that he will cost at least $2 million against the cap next season.
Anthony Angello: Another guy he provides the Penguins with solid depth, Angello could easily find himself back in Pittsburgh next season, even if it takes a two-way deal to make happen. There wasn’t too much to write home about in regards to last season for Angello, only playing in eight games but he did score his first career NHL goal. At worst, he’s a depth guy who can be called up from the AHL to fill in should injuries arise.
Six of the eight restricted free agents for the Penguins should either be coming back or have decent odds of coming back next season. That leaves just two players, who as of right now, look to be on their way out of Pittsburgh in the coming weeks.
Matt Murray: There isn’t much left to be written that hasn’t already been written a thousand times over about Murray, his future in Pittsburgh, or the Penguins goaltending situation as a whole. If you were to tell someone in 2018 that Matt Murray would be on his way out of Pittsburgh in 2020 they would probably assumed he simply priced himself out of town. Sadly that is not the case as Murray has been anything but the franchise goalie he looked like after winning consecutive Stanley Cups as a rookie. For some reason, Murray could just never find the right consistency to be the long term solution.
Juuso Riikola: For whatever reason, Riikola could never crack the Penguins lineup on a consistent basis during his time in Pittsburgh, and as a result, looks to be his way out of town. You can place some of the blame for Riikola’s lack of playing time on head coach Mike Sullivan, but at some point it’s on the player to make his own case as well. When he has seen playing time, Riikola has played like an upgrade over those in front of him, but as long as the current regime remains in place it’s hard to see Riikola coming back.
As a reminder, any of these guys can sign a new contract at any point before qualifying offers are due, ths negating their free agent status before the process ever begins. If Rutherford is keen on bringing someone back and avoiding the hassle, he always has that option.
There is no question at least a few of the Penguins unrestricted free agents listed above will be coming back and this is just our best guess at who will be returning and who will be leaving this offseason. Much of how everything plays out will be predicated on Rutherford’s vision for the Penguins moving forward and what other moves he makes to bring the team closer to that vision.
If you think a player mentioned above should be in a different category, feel free to jump into the comments and give your thoughts on how you think the situation will play out with the Penguins eight restricted free agents.