There have been quite a few positive developments for the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first part of the 2021-22 NHL season. The most significant of those developments has probably been the bounce back season from starting goalie Tristan Jarry, who has been way better than probably even the most optimistic fan could have hoped.
Right behind him has been the play of the Penguins’ free agent acquisitions who have helped maintain the sort of quality depth teams need around their superstars to seriously compete for a Stanley Cup.
Go back to the Penguins’ offseason and on the surface it looked to be everything we should have expected from a Ron Hextall GM’d team. Patient, slow, no real blockbuster moves. Other than Jared McCann, they did not make any earth shattering trades. They did not really make a significant splash in free agency, and instead opted to make a couple of under-the-radar type moves when things started to slow down.
It was then that they signed Brock McGinn to a four-year, $11 million contract. Danton Heinen to a one-year, $1.1 million contract, and Evan Rodrigues to a one-year, $1 million contract (yes I am including Rodrigues here among this group because he did technically go to unrestricted free agency before returning).
Then just before the start of the season with the center depth in question they brought in Brian Boyle on a professional tryout contract, signing him to a one-year $750,000 contract.
At the time, given what we knew about how productive McCann and Brandon Tanev were in their roles, and the unknown that was the new players, it was at least reasonable to believe the Penguins’ depth might take a step backwards.
All together those new four players are counting just $5.6 million against the salary cap for this season. That is an average of $1.4 million per player.
Tanev and McCann on their own accounted for $6.4 million.
As of Wednesday, the quartet has already combined to score 30 goals for the Penguins. That is more than 34 percent of the team’s goals so far this season, while accounting for just 7 percent of their allotted salary cap space.
That is a pretty stunning twist that I did not see happening.
Rodrigues, Heinen, and McGinn are all among the team’s top-five goal scorers, and are all currently on pace for career years offensively.
That does not even take into account the non-goal scoring contributions, with McGinn and Boyle making an impact on the league’s best penalty killing unit, while Rodrigues and Heinen have posted outstanding underlying numbers to back up their goal and point production. They have all been perfect fits.
Out of them all Heinen might be the least surprising in hindsight. His first two years in Boston were really productive with strong possession numbers. He looked like a 20-goal, 50-point top-six winger that could push play and contribute in a lot of ways.
Then he got traded to Anaheim, played on some bad teams with little offensive talent around him, and his point numbers dropped like a rock. His goal numbers were still in line with what he did in Boston, but nobody was finishing for him. Only so much a player can do about that. We should have seen him as a player that just need a new environment and a fresh start (and hey, maybe you did see him as that!).
Rodrigues is probably the most surprising just because he has been so great. His underlying and possessions numbers are off the charts, he is generating a ton of shots, and even though he is on track to crush his previous career high in goals he is not doing it because of an absurdly high shooting percentage. He also passes the eye test and looks like a player that is just flowing with confidence. He is taking on everybody one and one with the puck and beating them, making players, generating shots, creating offense, and scoring goals.
McGinn is the one I was most skeptical of and had the lowest expectations for, and it was mainly due to the four-year contract term. Just seemed a little excessive at the time, but so far it is looking like a fine move. More than fine, actually, as he has essentially replaced Tanev’s role (right down to the contract expiring at the same time) for a slightly cheaper salary cap hit. So they are not really losing much, if anything at all, on the ice and are coming out slightly ahead on the salary cap front.
Boyle, meanwhile, has just been absolutely fine for what he has been expected to do. He is not going to make a huge impact, but he has not hurt them, either. He has contributed to the PK, and if he is your 14th forward that you need to insert into the lineup for a game or two he is a solid veteran to have in that spot. He even has solid possession numbers during 5-on-5 play.
In the end, Ron Hextall may have taken an under-the-radar approach to the offseason and not done much to dramatically change the look of the team, His moves are still paying off in a big way.