The surprise trade bringing Kasperi Kapanen back to the Pittsburgh Penguins shows that Jim Rutherford is going to make changes (plural) to his roster ahead of the 2020-21 season.
The trade shows that Rutherford still values speed and skill, and both are assets that Kapanen possesses. But where will he play? Is he a third liner, like how the Maple Leafs largely deployed him? Or is a change of scenery and players all Kapanen needs to realize some untapped potential?
When speaking to the media after the trade was announced, Rutherford had this to say on where he sees Kapanen’s skill set fitting into the lineup:
“Well, we always liked him,” Rutherford said on Tuesday. “When you get a guy like Kessel, you’ve got to give up something. He’s young at 24. We’ve got control for four years. He can play in our top-six. He can kill penalties. We’ve been looking for ways to strengthen our top six. We feel now that we’ve got to the point that we’ve got the six guys that can go there.”
Rutherford obviously views Kapanen as a player who is more than capable of handling himself with the big boys.
So, the question becomes, after a season where Kapanen only scored 13 goals and 36 points after registering 20 goals in 2018-19, what kind of player will we be getting whenever the puck drops on the 2020-21 season?
While I don’t think Kapanen will transform into some 30-40 goalscorer, if he can reach the 50-60 point mark, I would count that as a victory. Is it a lofty goal considering Kapanen’s career totals to this point? Maybe. But consistently playing alongside one of Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin can’t hurt.
With that in mind, here’s how I am projecting the top-six for opening night 2020-21:
Jake Guentzel - Sidney Crosby - Kasperi Kapanen
Jason Zucker - Evgeni Malkin - Bryan Rust
I think the top-six is almost certainly set, and as Rutherford pointed out, Kapanen was the last piece to that puzzle.
Where the fun part lies, however, is trying to figure out what in the world the bottom-six and defense will look like. It’s impossible to predict solely because we know GMJR is not done making moves, but for the sake of fun, I’m going to give my best guess as to what the rest of the lineup will look like:
Zach Aston-Reese - Teddy Blueger - Brandon Tanev
Dominik Simon/Jared McCann - XXX - XXX
Aston-Reese’s $1M salary for ‘20-21 could be shed in a future trade to shake up the bottom-six depth, but seeing how dominant this line was throughout the season, I think all three players will return for their same roles. This “fourth line” was the de facto third line throughout the Canadiens series, and I think it could remain as the permanent third line at season’s start.
Jared McCann’s days of playing as the long-term third line center may be over; this playoff run even saw him get scratched in one of the four games played against the Canadiens. He is an RFA and could be tendered by the Penguins for one more “prove it” year, but combining the flat salary cap and his recent play, he could very well be out the door.
And coming off of shoulder surgery in May, after the 6-7-month recovery range, Simon could come back on the cheaper end of the scale, even though he is an RFA, too.
Conor Sheary is gone. Patrick Marleau is gone. Sam Lafferty and Anthony Angello are decent depth fill-ins that start out in WB/S.
And that takes me to Patric Hornqvist and his $5.3M cap hit for the next three seasons. Hornqvist will have a no-trade clause in his contract, which makes it a bit more challenging for Rutherford if he wants to get younger and faster.
The clause will have to be waived, and for the sake of change and this roster projection, I think it will be, and Hornqvist’s days in Pittsburgh are over.
Switching over to the defense:
Brian Dumoulin - Kris Letang
Marcus Pettersson - John Marino
Jack Johnson - Chad Ruhwedel
The top-four defense parings will not be touched, in my opinion. Dumo-Letang is as steady as they come, even if you think Letang should be traded.
And John Marino has turned himself into a stud behind Letang on the right side. Marcus Pettersson’s five-year extension also kicks in next season. Barring a surprise salary dump, he’s staying put.
This general manager has been known to say one thing and do another. Jack Johnson’s salary would also be a prime one to shed, given the circumstances, but Rutherford’s supposed loyalty to Johnson leads me to believe he will be on that bottom pair next season. Chad Ruhwedel could be a cheap right-handed option to round out the defense since Justin Schultz is out of here. Not great, but it is what it is.
I’m almost certain Matt Murray will be the goalie that is shipped off between the two. Time for the team and the player to go separate ways. Jarry will own the crease, and after being buried in the minors last year, Casey DeSmith presumably will come back up to sit behind Jarry.
A few bottom-six roster spots are up for grabs; an entire forward line may belong to some new faces. And as we continue to dream, maybe the bottom left d-man slot will be open.
Will this whole article be out of date by next week? Knowing how Rutherford works, probably, but at this point in the off-season, roster speculation is always a fun game to play.
Let us know what you think the Pens’ roster will look like down below!