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Playing Armchair GM: Build your own Pittsburgh Penguins’ off-season

Moves we would make this summer if at the wheel for the Penguins. Yes, there is a John Gibson sighting.

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Anaheim Ducks v Minnesota Wild Photo by Bruce Kluckhohn/NHLI via Getty Images

It’s summer, it’s hot; you’re here, I’m here so let’s take a trip to hypothetical island. What else are we going to do?

In a few weeks the NHL off-season kicks up, and this year we’re still a somewhat condensed time (usually UFA starts July 1, it won’t until July 28 this year). In fact, from expansion draft to entry draft to UFA, the week from July 21-28 is going to be almost an overload of activity around the league.

How would you handle it if you were in charge of the Penguins? With video games and computer simulations and the ever-handy Arm Chair GM feature on the CapFriendly website, it’s never been easier to play GM. So play GM we will.

These moves were made in the spirit of what seems realistically possible — as in, there’s no use in imagining Alex Ovechkin hits the free agent market and signs a league minimum salary to join the Pens. We’re not going to trade Mike Matheson for Connor McDavid or anything like that. Fun as that might be, that’s just a little too out of bounds.

Some assumptions and predictive behavior is being made here, though, some/most/all of it will play out differently in the real world. But this isn’t the real world, it’s my spin at it, so here we go. Definitely chime in with what you think should happen, could happen, would be awesome if it did happen and all that below.

First of all, Brian Burke and Ron Hextall like this division winning team as it is constructed. They’ve said so multiple times, highlight by Burke’s post-season statement that included saying, “The team did well. It deserves to be rewarded with being kept intact”.

So we won’t envision major, sweeping changes to the roster this off-season.

But we will be proactive with regards to dealing with expansion and not leave a top-six forward out there on the exposed list.

Here are the moves to be made:

Trade 1: The Pens need to clear a relic of the Jim Rutherford era in getting Juuso Riikola off the books. Dallas seems to like their Finnish players, so I just chose them at random as the landing spot. Find someone, anyone to take him, for a conditional pick that won’t be met, just a housekeeping move to give him a chance to maybe play somewhere else and clear a contract for Pittsburgh.

If no trade exists, the Pens will have to bury Riikola in the AHL an incur a small $25,000 cap penalty to do so. Not the end of the world if it comes to that, but it would be better for all parties to let the player get a new start.

Trade 2: The blockbuster deal. Anaheim is hungry for NHL level scoring, Zucker is a goal and point producing winger when he is healthy. He also only has two years left on his contract. This makes him a LOT more attractive for the Ducks than attempting to recruit a free agent to a bad team and paying a Brandon Saad or Kyle Palmieri $5-6 million for 4-5-6 years and possibly not getting the player anyways if he chooses somewhere else. We’ll have Pittsburgh retain $1 million to help keep the trade towards salary neutral, and make Zucker even more appealing of an asset for Anaheim.

Anaheim also gets Jarry as a bounce-back candidate, which he should provide at least average goaltending per his NHL resume. And they get an extra prospect in 2020 second round pick Joel Blomqivst, a top European goalie prospect. If they want something else instead of Blomqvist but that is comparable in value like a Nathan Legare or a future second round draft pick, maybe even a 2022 first to get enough value — fine. Whatever it takes. The Pens need a goalie upgrade and Gibson should provide them a high-end, skilled option in net.

It feels like a pretty good value trade for both teams. Maybe Anaheim doesn’t want to trade Gibson at all this summer, that’s their right. Here’s to hoping they will be amenable to moving on though, or missed the playoffs and put enough stock in Jarry to make a run at it.

Trade 3: On the surface, this trade looks wacky and random. But it’s got expansion considerations all over it. Winnipeg beat writer from The Athletic Murat Ates left Mason Appleton, 25, exposed on his unofficial projected list for the Jets. Why would Winnipeg want to lose Appleton for nothing? Winnipeg could also use some defensive adds to help their lowly performing xGA 5v5 defense, an area where Pettersson has quietly excelled and made the Pens better. Appleton is also 6’2, 195 pounds and gives the Pens a little bit of more of a player with a physical edge and some size. It’s a win/win, and would be smart for teams to work with each other prior to expansion, rather to bow and just let Seattle pick them apart. (This also means I would have to leave Jeff Carter exposed now, which the Pens probably won’t do in real life. But this isn’t real life).

Trade 4: As a result, the best player open to expansion and the player I would take if I were Seattle is Teddy Blueger. This might be just as well for Pittsburgh, as Blueger is a restricted free agent with arbitration rights. The Post-Gazette recently speculated a salary of $3-4 million might result. That feels a little high, but not by much, Evolving Hockey’s contract projection is $2.3 million. Even without expansion and just with the salary cap, it becomes pretty difficult to work out a situation to get Blueger back. Considering that Jeff Carter is on hand to add center depth, that helps the Pens absorb the loss really well.

Free agency

After all of these moves, I have approximately $7 million in cap space for my new-look, hypothetical Penguins (this figure includes the buyout penalty for Jack Johnson). Here is the depth chart for my team after all this wheeling and dealing at this point, after expansion draft and prior to the start of free agency:

—Obviously the left wing needs some attention, as does a new fourth line center. I could also use some defensive depth. (Also, as you might have noticed I’ve dropped Chad Ruhwedel to the minors, or imagine he’s lost to waivers, as Mark Friedman has replaced Ruhwedel as the new depth defensive option in the Hextall era. And we’ve officially promoted P.O. Joseph to the NHL full-time).

—With cap space at a premium, and as someone on the internet foresaw, I can’t afford to qualify Zach Aston-Reese. Like Blueger, Aston-Reese priced himself out in this simulation, as the Pens can’t risk a $2+ million arbitration award with their salary structure. $2 million is the Evolving Hockey salary estimation for ZAR as well.

—To add a body to the left side, I’m taking a chance on Sean Kuraly. His career didn’t exactly take off in Boston, but he’s only 28, has some energy and at 6’2, 215 pounds will add a little bit of size to the bottom-six forward group. I get Kuraly for one year at $1.0 million as he looks to get his career back on track after scoring just nine points (4G+5A) in 47 games for the Bruins last year.

—To help replace Aston-Reese (and more) I’m dipping into free agency to get Carolina’s Brock McGinn. Evolving Hockey has his contract projection at $2.68m, I’ll conservatively bump up to $2.75m for three years. McGinn is a good PK’er, an energy player, a vaunted “glue guy”. Based on past performances, a 15G+15A season isn’t going into new territory for McGinn. It’s way more than Aston-Reese has ever produced. We’ll take the upgrade.

—I will bring back restricted free agent Radim Zohorna to a one-year deal. It gives him a crack at the NHL and also offers a LW option for the bottom-six with size and some intriguing ability with his hands to make plays in the offensive zone.

—Frederick Gaudreau was great for the Penguins, so I’m bringing him back to play center on the cheap.

—Then...I saved my biggest free agent splash for last...Welcome back to the Penguins, Cody Ceci! I’m showing Ceci that Justin Braun got $1.8 for two years from Philadelphia last summer. With little cap space remaining, I can’t afford to go much more than that, but will offer $2.0 million for two years, giving the opportunity for Ceci to finally get some stability and a chance to stay somewhere he fit in. For this simulation, Ceci agrees to stay in Pittsburgh.

—Sam Lafferty’s speed and versatility to play any of the three forward positions beats out Anthony Angello’s size for the extra forward spot.

Here’s my new look Penguins roster now after free agency.

This baby is coming in at $1.34 million under the salary cap, which should allow plenty of space to build that by the deadline the Pens can evaluate their roster and add another left wing or center option, if necessary. It also is plenty of space for, sigh, injury call-ups.

The kind of unspoken element too is that Appleton should get looks with Crosby and Malkin at some points. With Bryan Rust in a free agency walk year, this could be an in-house replacement for the future if Rust can’t be retained.

Any team is bound to have some questions in a cap era, and this is no different. Is Joseph ready for full time action? Can Gaudreau be consistent as a fourth line center? Can Samuel Poulin make his presence known at some point as a call-up for a weak looking left side?

My roster contains only four new players, which is in-line with Hextall and Burke’s comments about liking the team and wanting to bring it back. There certainly could be scenarios where Blueger and/or Aston-Reese are retained, and the Gibson trade would be projecting a major, massive move that may or may not be possible, so this is a pretty daring look at the off-season. The Appleton trade continues the hurdles of what is possible or likely, but made more in the vein of “let’s hope the Pens find a way to make pre-expansion moves that help” and what could happen, rather than be an actual prediction of what will happen.

But the Pens need to be daring to seek upgrades and changes in an attempt to put Crosby and Malkin in the best place possible to make another deep run next season. I think and hope this roster would put them in a spot to start.

What are your Pens’ off-season possibilities? How would the team look and what moves would be made in the next few weeks if it worked out the way you wanted? The hot summer can lead to some fun dreams.