When it comes to the Seattle Kraken expansion draft tomorrow night, the player the Penguins may lose is projected to be all over the map. There are a few good candidates, but none stand too far out.
It could be Jason Zucker, some opine. Others point to Brandon Tanev. Still different places forecast Marcus Pettersson to head west. And don’t forget about Zach Aston-Reese as a possibility. To an extent even Casey DeSmith is worth a consideration.
The excitement, or perhaps nervousness, is that a loss of any of these players would mean something drastically different for how the Pens will need to respond. In some cases that might be replaced by “be able to respond”.
The bad side effects for the Pens if they lose him: After trading Jared McCann last week, losing Zucker would be another big blow to the depth chart on the left wing, which would consist of Jake Guentzel and then basically three raccoons stacked on top of each other in a trench coat. Prior to last season, Zucker scored 20+ goals in the previous four campaigns, and even last year with 9G in 38 games he was almost on a 20 goal pace over the course of 82 games. Even in an uneven, down year without key power play time, Zucker is a player that will produce points, drive a positive shot-possession and help open up the game with his skating.
The good side effects for the Pens if they lose him: Opening up $5.5 million in salary cap space would be a very welcome development for Pittsburgh. There isn’t much at LW if that happens, but that would quickly become a focus and the team could become a real player to add a fairly marquee free agent (“Brandon Saad’s coming home!” narratives will be in full effect if Zucker departs).
Seattle view: Between Jordan Eberle, Josh Bailey, Vladimir Tarasenko, James van Riemsdyk, Jakub Voracek, Ondrej Palat and Nino Niederreiter there is plenty of talent on the wing with similar cap hits as Zucker for Seattle to consider. Zucker may not stand out all that much, especially since some of those players had better seasons last year. Then again, some of those players are on teams with other good options exposed as well at different positions.
Overall: The possibility of losing Zucker and McCann from the left side in the expansion process would be a very big change for the Pens to address and need to add more talent immediately to surround their top centers. Given Zucker’s large salary, if they make the right choices to follow up, that might not be a bad thing.
The bad side effects for the Pens if they lose him: The team would be less fun to watch, team speed and feistiness will take a hit. Tanev is a player you need in the playoffs you’ll hear over and over again (even if he has but two points in 10 playoff games in Pittsburgh that the Pens are 3-7 in). Still, it would be a blow to the energy, PK and physicality of the forward group and would certainly require attention to try and fill the skates of what Tanev has brought to the table in two solid years on the ice from the third or fourth line.
The good side effects for the Pens if they lose him: Clearing up $3.5 million on the cap for the next four years would be a positive development for the team in the short and long term. Teams lose players like Bryan Rust when they can’t afford to pay them because they have dead money in a Jack Johnson buyout and lower line players like Tanev stuck on expensive contracts.
Seattle view: Pretty much every third and fourth line player are available. Seattle has said they want to maximize their blank salary cap to use as an advantage. If that holds, it makes no real sense for them to add a winger who turns 30 next season with four years left to a $3.5 million deal. Just my impression, but I sense way more in Pittsburgh are worried about losing Tanev rather than a Kraken perspective of seeing a great fit.
Overall: This will be an unpopular statement, but in some ways losing Tanev to expansion might be the most beneficial thing that could happen at this point for the Pens. He makes a meaningful enough salary that with a smart move his spot could be replaced for less and give enough room for the team to upgrade somewhere else. Tanev has given Pittsburgh two solid seasons and it would be a loss to lose him, but he doesn’t have a monopoly on skating fast and trying hard.
The bad side effects for the Pens if they lose him: There’s a lot of evidence that the secret sauce in what makes the “Buzzsaw” line tick so well isn’t Tanev, and it isn’t even Teddy Blueger. The key element in the defensive success has a lot to do with least flashy player of the three in Aston-Reese. From a very good piece at The Pensblog:
Since the start of the 2019-20 season, the trio has spent 562 minutes together at 5v5. In that time, the Penguins outscored the opposition 16-10 while controlling 53.1% of the expected goals and 56.6% of the high-danger chances, per Natural Stat Trick.
Without Aston-Reese, the duo of Blueger and Tanev gets heavily outplayed. In 324 minutes at 5v5, Blueger and Tanev minus Aston-Reese have been outscored 13-5, and controlled just 43.5% of the expected goals and 42.7% of the high-danger chances.
The good side effects for the Pens if they lose him: Aston-Reese is just a fourth liner, losing him isn’t tremendously damaging on the surface. Durability has at times been an issue, as has offensive production. A potential fourth line next year with, say, Drew O’Connor replacing Aston-Reese with someone like Frederick Gaudreau and Tanev is probably going to be passable.
Seattle view: With Seattle making no secret they’re an organization that will embrace the data of analytics, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Aston-Reese stands out for the impressive defensive and suppression metrics he has put up over multiple seasons. With an Evolving Hockey contract projection of $2.1 million annual salary for three seasons, and at the age of 27 that figures to be fairly appealing as well. But do they think he’s good enough all-around to be the selection?
Overall: A loss of Aston-Reese would sting, especially financially. Aston-Reese has played 14 minutes per game the last two seasons and been the team’s best defensive forward. All the other expansion targets would open up far more salary cap room for Pittsburgh, which is another important factor. The Pens would really need a young/new forward like O’Connor or Radim Zohoran or even Sam Lafferty to step up big time, the chances of that happening being pretty hopeful.
The bad side effects for the Pens if they lose him: Pettersson quietly put up decent under-the-radar defensive stats last season, losing him would mean the team really can’t afford any inconsistency from Mike Matheson and also rely on Pierre-Olivier Joseph to level up and be a full time NHLer.
The good side effects for the Pens if they lose him: It clears up $4.025 million, which would be a great development. Also, Joseph just might be ready for a bigger role. Of all the players, Pettersson is the player that could be lost and due to depth at his spot the team would be probably best equipped to move on.
Seattle view: Having four years left on his contract isn’t a positive, but how many other 25 year olds with legit immediate potential second pair ability are on the table?
Overall: Just how much Seattle favors Pettersson is going to be answered by other targets around the league. If they elect to take players like Mark Giordano, Vince Dunn, Jake Bean and Haydn Fleury, it’s easy to focus on a Pittsburgh forward. The Pens are in decent shape to move on without Pettersson if they have to, but if he remains with the team that could turn out to be a minorly positive development if, say, Brian Dumoulin gets hurt next season again or if Pettersson can re-find his game and play better.
Prediction of likelihood of Seattle’s interest/fit:
4. Brandon Tanev
3. Marcus Pettersson
2. Jason Zucker
1. Zach Aston-Reese
Can’t shake the feeling right now that Aston-Reese makes a lot of sense for Seattle to zero in on, given that they have so many choices for fairly expensive top-six wingers across the league. It wouldn’t really be that shocking if Zucker was still the route they took, and Pettersson is probably at least in play depending on how they choose to strategize the available forward/defense splits.