When a team loses early in the playoffs in the NHL, there are always changes coming. Be it big or small, teams are going to shuffle the deck and try to put their best foot forward and regroup for the next season.
Last year, after the Penguins lost in embarrassing fashion in a four game sweep to the New York Islanders, big changes were on the horizon. Upset about the perceived “team chemistry” and cohesion, the Pens traded Phil Kessel in the off-season. They also traded Olli Maatta. Garrett Wilson moved on in free agency (and hasn’t played in the NHL since). Matt Cullen retired.
But that was it for the changes, with the Pens mainly banking on “mixing up the room” and figuring that dealing the sometimes mercurial Kessel would be a net-gain to the team.
While last year’s team only lost four players from the last playoff game lineup, it is very likely that the 2020-21 Penguins will be much different than the version of the team that skated off the Toronto bubble in disgrace yesterday.
So let’s set the odds at the players on the team most likely to not be back..
99.9% (because never ever say ever, right?...But, yeah, probably never)
The trade deadline addition was made with the best of intentions, but probably couldn’t have worked out worse for both the team and the player.
Marleau had just a 32.6% Corsi in the four play-in games, worst on the team. He was on ice for 0 goals for and 4 goals against. Overall he had just one goal and one assist in 12 games in a Penguin jersey. It didn’t work.
Marleau turns 41 in September. The break seemed to do no favors for his old legs that have over 1,900 NHL regular season and playoff games. His family has some roots in California. Whether or not he can still play in the NHL feels very dubious on merit at this point. If he does, it certainly won’t be in Pittsburgh next season.
It was a sad ending in Pittsburgh for Justin Schultz. The player who once scored 51 points in 78 games in 2016-17 and earned a $16.5 million contract for three seasons saw that contract expire with Schultz being an absolute liability and terrible player by the end of that contract in the bubble in Toronto. Schultz never regained form after a severely broken ankle in December 2018. It’s a tough and unforgiving sport and players who suffer big injuries are never guaranteed to regain 100% of their previous form. That certainly has been the case for Schultz. It’s hard to see him coming back, by team choice or his own.
Despite playing him faithfully despite terrible results, the Pens DID try to trade Johnson last summer, only to be foiled by Kessel’s no trade. He’s a total liability and the team will rightfully be looking to boost and remake their third pair defense and third line offense. With a flat cap, the Pens can’t spend $3.25 million on a bad defenseman next season. They just can’t.
If a trade can’t happen, a buyout would only leave a $1.16 million cap hit in 2020-21 (with five more years of pain still to linger). That would save over $2 million to replace him. The Pens have never used a buyout, but they’ve never had a player with so many years left that is so subpar as well. So let’s hope, right? If the team gives an honest look on how to improve, removing Johnson has to be item 1, 2 and 3 of ways they can get better, through whatever means necessary.
Winds of change mean change
Riikola was nothing more than depth and needs a contract as a restricted free agent. The team often resorted using him as a forward and only played him as a last resort due to injuries. Seems like it might be time to move on at this point. If Riikola wasn’t an option this summer, when would he ever be? If he’s not, why move to retain him?
Murray didn’t start the team’s final game. His status of a Stanley Cup winning goalie is way in the rear-view mirror. He has arbitration rights, but is close to unrestricted free agency? Has he priced himself out? Do they see him as having a future? A ton of questions right now, but it hasn’t trended towards him staying around.
Bjustad has a year left on his contract, but missed so much time this year. And when he played he wasn’t great. This is the type of player that tends to get flipped around. Whether it’s a buyout or trade, you would have to think Bjugstad is a big candidate now to not be playing in Pittsburgh next season.
McCann was actually the team’s fifth leading scorer as a forward this season. But he ended the season on a 25 game goal drought. And was a healthy scratch for Game 3 against Montreal. McCann needs a contract this summer. Will it come with Pittsburgh? He was given a chance, albeit brief, to solve the third line center role but failed the test in a big fashion. That’s not a good sign moving forward. Is he a winger? Center? Can he be more consistent at scoring? A lot of questions surround him and he only added to them and didn’t answer any.
Conor Sheary is an unrestricted free agent. On the plus side, he’s got some chemistry with Sidney Crosby. On the minus side, he has large stretches of inconsistency. Sheary was the first star of the game with a two assist effort in Game 3. The other three games of the playoffs he was virtually a non-factor. Does the team want him back? Does he find a better offer somewhere else? Feels like a case where drifting apart makes sense for both sides.
One of the most amazing things from when Jim Rutherford took over in summer 2014 to when the Pens won the Stanley Cup in 2016 was the amount of roster turnover and rebuilding on the fly that he did. Only Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Olli Maatta, Chris Kunitz and Kris Letang played in the last playoff game in 2014 and were around two years later. (Marc-Andre Fleury too, though he lost his starting job).
A similar retool might be necessary. Would a shot out of the blue like removing Patric Hornqvist be involved? Or an even crazier move? One would think most of the supporting case (Zucker, Bryan Rust, Brian Dumoulin, John Marino) are safe behind the franchise cornerstones in 87+71+58+59, but at this point, who really knows?
Early exits always mean times of change, and now as the dust will start to settle on the Pens shocking loss to Montreal, the only thing for sure is that several players in the lineup yesterday won’t have a future in Pittsburgh moving forward.