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Penguins Offseason Preview: New Manager, Same Challenge

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A look at the decisions the Penguins will need to make this summer as they look to retool and improve for next season

Pittsburgh Penguins v New York Islanders - Game Six Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Another offseason starts early in Pittsburgh, after the Penguins bow out in the first round for the third season in a row. The team has been unable to find postseason success lately as they try to round out the final years of the Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin era.

Pittsburgh has an aging core, a defense where Mike Matheson and Cody Ceci ended up as the third and fourth most used/best defenders, a porous goalie and hardly any cap space. Add in a looming expansion draft and it will be a big challenge to reshape the team.

The day after a playoff elimination is always the Super Bowl of hot takes, Trade the star players! Fire everyone!

It’s cathartic and catches attention, but probably doesn’t really solve any problems or give a good road map of what is to come.

The new wrinkle, is that there are new decision makers in town. GM Ron Hextall and President of Hockey Operations Brian Burke have been mostly acclimating, observing and monitoring the situation.

They had to have liked what they saw until the playoffs started. Pittsburgh went 32-11-2 from when Hextall and Burke were hired in the regular season, the second highest points% in the league behind Colorado. They won the very competitive East Division. They navigated a COVID season of endless testing, altered routines from meetings to dressing situations to when they could arrive at the rink. And they did it all despite being among the league-leaders in games lost to injury.

Put all of that in the plus column. In the negative, well, there’s the last two weeks. The Pens’ stars largely struggled to score goals in the playoffs, despite mostly dominating play territoriality. Two young defenders (with big contracts!) in John Marino and Marcus Pettersson were shielded away and lightly used. Their goaltending was an abject disaster. They have inheirted a coach who hasn’t won a playoff series since 2018 for an ownership group that aims to compete for championships.

Hextall has gained a reputation of being a very conservative and heady manager, monitoring and considering many possibilities, but typically acting on few.

As such, despite the torrent of injuries, there were no rash or impulsive roster decisions made. The Pens claimed depth defenseman Mark Friedman — a player Hextall drafted — off waivers. They traded two mid-round picks (basically nothing in NHL currency) for veteran forward Jeff Carter — another player Hextall had extensive experience with previously.

Now, however, this offseason will offer Hextall his first real chance to re-shape the roster and make the changes he sees fit to get the Penguins to a better spot.

Star decisions

The biggest question for any team is what they would like to do and re-commit to building around their franchise cornerstones. Usually that is an easy decision, as it will be with Sidney Crosby.

However, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang now have one season left of their contracts. Both are getting to their mid-30’s with Letang turning 34 last month and Malkin about to turn 35 later in the summer.

Malkin has a full no trade and no movement clause. Letang has a 13-team no trade clause.

Both are important players to the team. Malkin has expressed no desire to leave, and it is strongly believed that owner Mario Lemieux wishes for Crosby and Malkin to be with the Penguins as long as both players want to stay.

There’s also the point our buddy Netwolf from LGP brought up that historically Brian Burke’s stated philosophy is never to even ask players with NTC’s to waive them, as part of how he deals with and values star level players that typically have no trade clauses. Keep that in mind if you see any extra spicy “trade Malkin” takes. Likely no one in the organization even has that in mind, unless the player comes to them with a request.

With Malkin (likely) off the table, the decision turns to Letang. But with only 18 available places to send him, and a reputation of getting injured and getting ages, it still doesn’t make much sense to trade Letang and remain competitive.

Letang finished tied-3rd among defensemen in the NHL with 45 points. His 24:39 average time played per game was up there too, and far and away the Pens’ leader. There’s no reasonable scenario where this player can be moved and the team be better off for it in 2021-22.

Also, beyond trading either star, let’s point out that both are eligible to sign contract extensions this offseason as well. It remains to be seen if that will happen, but is worth remembering too.

Does Sullivan stay?

Hextall and Burke inherited Sullivan and have a big decision to make about his future. The Stanley Cup days of 2016 and 2017 are fading fast for an NHL coaching resume where often Jack Adams award winning coaches are often fired within years of being considered the best coach.

Usually the best way to shake up a team is to change the main voice instructing them and NHL coaches are readily replaceable and easy to cycle through.

But, read that part again above where the Pens went 31-11-2 in the last 44 games this season, despite a litany of injuries, and won what was a very balanced and deep division.

Is that a coach you want to change? Is it time for the new bosses to get a new guy, or are they satisfied Sullivan is the man for the job?

Once the emotion and natural dismay of an early exit subside, it will be interesting to see how the Penguins move forward on the bench. Even now though, it doesn’t look like coaching was the driving factor of why Pittsburgh didn’t win their first playoff series this season, though.

The question might be: do they give Sullivan credit for the strong first 56 games? Or put more onus on the end result of the early playoff exit?

However, even if Sullivan remains in Pittsburgh, changes to the staff could still be made. Mike Velucci was in his first season as an NHL assistant coach this year. Velucci was a “Jim Rutherford guy”, and in his role because Rutherford knew him and they had worked together for many years. Will he be retained by new management?

Also, fair or not, it seems like the goalie coach position needs a strong assessment as well. Mike Buckley has been the Pens’ goalie coach since the summer of 2017. The Penguins have not had great goaltending since...summer of 2017.

Even if Sullivan is retained, it’s easy to foresee that the coaching staff next season could be different.

Freeing up cap space

Hextall also assumes quite a bit of a salary cap quandary for next season. The good news is most of the team’s key players are under contract next year — only Cody Ceci, Frederick Gaudreau and Evan Rodrigues are players who appeared in playoffs that are unrestricted free agents this summer. However, the Pens have almost no cap space to work with either.

Hextall can make some trimming moves; like deciding whom among Friedman, Chad Ruhwedel and Juuso Riikola he may want to keep or move on from, but that won’t make much of an impact.

A trade of a mid-level player with a sizeable contract like Jason Zucker or Marcus Pettersson could be considered. It’s conceivable either could be left as available options for Seattle to select in the expansion draft, as well, in hopes to clear more salary space. Which, of course, expansion scenarios will make for a hot topic in the weeks to come.

If Hextall wants to make more sweeping moves, he is going to have to shuffle the money around to do so. He’s backed into a corner here and won’t have a lot of flexibility, but he has now had months to evaluate and consider what steps he wants to take in order to make sure next offseason is shorter than what the Penguins will deal with this year.