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Who will miss the cut for the Penguins protection list?

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The math doesn’t add up for Pittsburgh to protect all of their best players

NHL: JAN 15 Penguins at Flyers Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Expansion drafts will mercifully be released this weekend and the next step of the process will continue to see who Seattle will actually be taking away from teams like the Penguins next week. Seemingly for years fans have been clamoring to wonder which players will be left as options to take and we’re finally about to find out.

For the Pens, the “fun” is up front with the forwards. As much fun as you can have about losing a useful player for nothing, anyways. It may catch some attention if Pittsburgh leaves Marcus Pettersson or Mike Matheson (or both!) exposed, but Seattle isn’t going to take a middling player with four or five years on their contracts, a Pens’ defenseman isn’t the play.

The Pens would really spice things up if they leave Tristan Jarry available, but is that really a consideration? Having a big hole on the team and needing to add quality to the position is — at minimum a risky move, and at worst a potential debacle that could result in over-paying or losing a free agent (in a world where there’s no guarantee a willing free agent is even going to provide better play than Jarry did over the scope of his full 2020-21 season).

The focus is the forwards. Pittsburgh has many good forwards and only seven spots. I know I’ve seen at least 10, if not 11 different forwards make various people’s safe list, to various degrees of logic and wisdom.

There’s no doubt about Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin. Or at least there should be no doubt from those who aren’t just trying to stir up reaction and crave attention. They both have no movement clauses anyways, by rule they have to be protected. Similarly, Bryan Rust and Jake Guentzel are first line players an absolute no-brainer protected players.

Kasperi Kapanen and Jared McCann are similar in age, role and ability, and both were elite point producers in 2020-21 and are under contracts for reasonable rates next season. In my mind, they’re both easily on the protection list with the mindset that above-average offensive production in the $3ish million salary cap range is almost impossible to replace, and nothing to lose.

Protecting all of those players would quickly leave just one spot left, with a group of: Jeff Carter, Jason Zucker, Teddy Blueger and Brandon Tanev all as legitimately worthy candidates to consider protecting. (Apologies to Zach Aston-Reese, who could be on the fringe of the conversation if it’s a long conversation).

Even if the Pens could protect 9 forwards, there would still be a pretty heated debate — as well as a pretty good choice or two still left out there for the Kraken to select. But they don’t get nine forward spots, only seven.

The good news, or as good as it gets, is the Pens will only lose one player. Seattle can’t skip picking from like, say, Buffalo and use it for taking a second Pittsburgh player. The format is already skewed to help the expansion team, but at least it isn’t THAT messed up. The Pens will lose a forward, probably a pretty useful one.

But which one? Let’s check on some cases:

Pittsburgh Penguins v New York Islanders - Game Six Photo by Mike Stobe/NHLI via Getty Images

Jeff Carter
36 years old, center/right wing
$2.6M AAV (through 2021-22)

Carter Season in Review

Why the Pens should protect him: Did you watch hockey in April and May? Carter was awesome and couldn’t stop scoring goals. He’s clearly got a lot left in the tank, and still has the legs to get in position and the hands to put pucks in the net. Add in center capability to play in a scoring line role (important with Evgeni Malkin out for the start of the season), impressive size and the ever-popular solid veteran presence factor and Carter pretty much is a player who quickly made himself excessively valuable and important in Pittsburgh...The other big reason to protect him? Reportedly Ron Hextall assured Carter during trade talks that the player would be taken care of for this. Carter had a bad experience changing teams to Columbus unexpectedly and understandably doesn’t want to have any major professional surprises.

Why the Pens shouldn’t protect him: He’s old and maybe that would scare Seattle away? I don’t really buy that, because Carter scored 17 goals last season. How many center is Seattle going to have access to with that ability and production? In the micro-level of just talking Jeff Carter, there’s not too many reasons presented to not protect him.

Kraken perspective: With a one year cap hit of $2.6 million, Carter as an asset (given his success as a 2021 trade chip) is a positive for Seattle. If he was available he would have to merit heavy consideration to be used as a scoring line center that has added value as a potential future trade piece.

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

Jason Zucker
29 years old, left wing
$5.5M AAV (through 2022-23)

Zucker Season in Review

Why the Pens protect him: Teams really shouldn’t be losing second line scoring forwards to expansion when they can protect seven forwards. Pittsburgh hasn’t seen the best of Zucker, who has dealt with season stoppages, delays, injuries and more in tough timing to be brought over. Yet for his career Pittsburgh stats (15G+15A in 53 games) still adds up for a raw scoring pace for 23 goals and 46 points in a full 82 game season. That’s probably not as bad as would be first remembered, with the potential for a more normal season and a chance to play better and produce even more.

Why the Pens shouldn’t protect him: Clear Zucker’s $5.5 million salary and the Pens could be players for a free agent like Brandon Saad or Zach Hyman. Either of those two would bring more of a size, physical game, and both might score more than Zucker has so far too. Losing Zucker would be the biggest opportunity for the team to clear salary, and therefore look to use it on a new player.

Kraken perspective: James van Riemsdyk might be out there, but there probably won’t be a ton of 29-year old proven scoring wingers for a still fairly reasonable cap hit PLUS term of only two more years. Everything depends on the whole board, but Zucker would add speed and skill for an expansion team, and that has to be attractive.

NHL: APR 22 Devils at Penguins Photo by Jeanine Leech/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Teddy Blueger
26 years old, center
$2.2M AAV (through 2022-23)

Blueger Season in Review

Why the Pens protect him: Blueger is very good at driving excellent defense and playing “dull” hockey to give stability to the team. Blueger has steadily and incrementally improved over the years as well, and is a versatile player that ranks as one of the team’s better forecheckers and PK’ers. Center depth is always important and keeping Blueger locks up a solid piece down the middle.

Why the Pens shouldn’t protect him: Blueger scored four 5v5 goals last season and in his NHL career has generated very little offense. He is a really good fourth liner/fill-in third liner in a spot where only seven can be safe. Much of what Blueger does best (like kill penalties) is more relatively easy to replace compared to other skill sets. When the Pens added Carter to the team, they inherently also bumped Blueger down a notch

Kraken perspective: Blueger is the youngest player on this list, which has to be a positive. A lot of the reasons the Pens liked Blueger enough to lock him up to a two-year contract are the reasons why Seattle would probably see him as a useful building block for their franchise.

NHL: MAY 20 Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round - Penguins at Islanders Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Brandon Tanev
29 years old, left/right wing
$3.5M AAV (through 2024-25)

Tanev Season in Review

Why the Pens protect him: Have you seen him on the ice in the last two years? Tanev is a whirling ball of energy. He hits, he skates hard, he doesn’t take a shift off. He’s fast, he blocks shots, he scores timely goals. There’s people who play hockey and then there are *~hockey players~*, if you know what I mean — with a just different inflection on working hard, doing whatever it takes and stepping up when it counts. Tanev is all of that.

Why the Pens shouldn’t protect him: The contract. Lose Tanev now, and Seattle has probably done Pittsburgh a favor to take him for his 30’s where naturally some of that spring and speed and quick twitch is going to wear off. Take that Tanev money and dump it in free agency to Barclay Goodrow or make a run at Blake Coleman and, congrats, the Pens just got younger and, frankly, better by getting a second or third liner instead of Tanev in his 30’s as probably what is going to be a fourth liner.

Kraken perspective: There are going to be a lot of quality energy players out there. Tanev’s on the high end to have four years left on a pricey contract. It wouldn’t be out of line if they snagged him, but it would be a bold move.

In the end? Here’s my call, Danny made up a sweet graphic and I’m on board with it, and pictures are nice. Carter is the most meaningful player in the fray, especially if Malkin is out early in the season.

This likely means one of Blueger or Zucker are about to head west and start a new adventure, which is far from ideal, but also the way of the world with NHL expansion. Everyone loses someone, and good teams with lots of good players are going to lose a pretty good player.