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Comparing the Penguins’ 2020 and 2021 free agents

New year, new GM, new free agents: how do Ron Hextall’s 2021 pickups compare to Jim Rutherford’s 2020 signings so far?

NHL: Pittsburgh Penguins at Boston Bruins
Dominik Simon battles for the puck at TD Garden on January 16, 2020.
Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

We’re still in the early days of the offseason, but the Penguins have already signed some players that will be making an impact on their 2021-22 lineup. Let’s look at what Ron Hextall has done so far— and how it compares to Jim Rutherford’s moves in the early days of last year’s offseason.

The free-agency overview

Using data from CapFriendly, let’s look at Penguins signings in the early days of July 2021 free agency:

  • Brock McGinn (LW) — 4 year, $11mil, $2.75mil per (2020-21: CAR, 37gp, 8-5—13)
  • Danton Heinen (C) — 1 year, $1.1mil (2020-21: ANA, 43gp, 7-7—14)
  • Evan Rodrigues (LW) — 1 year, $1mil (2020-21: PIT, 35gp, 7-7—14)
  • Dominik Simon (C) — 1 year, $750k, two-way (2020-21: CGY, 11gp, 0-0—0 // AHL Stockton, 1gp, 0-0—0)
  • Taylor Fedun (D) — 1 year, $750k, two-way (2020-21: AHL Texas, 2gp, 0-0—0)
  • Michael Chaput (C) — 1 year, $750k, two-way (2020-21: ARI, 13gp, 0-0—0)
  • Filip Lindberg (G) — 2 year, $1.85mil, $925k per, two-way (2020-21: NCAA UMass, 15 starts with a 10-1-4 record, .949 SV% and 1.24 GAA)

Let’s compare that to the Penguins’ signings in the early days of October 2020’s free agency:

  • Mark Jankowski (C) — 1 year, $700k (Skated in 45 Penguins games, recorded 11 points from four goals and seven assists)
  • Evan Rodrigues (LW) — 1 year, $700k (Played 35 Penguins games, recorded seven goals and seven assists)
  • Anthony Angello (C) — 2 year, $1.45mil, $725k per, two-way (Skated in 19 games for the Penguins, registered a pair each of goals and assists; played in 12 contests in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, putting up 10 points on six goals and four helpers)
  • Frederick Gaudreau (C) — 1 year, $700k, two-way (10 points (2-8—10) in 19 games for Pittsburgh; four points (1-3—4) in six games as alternate captain in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton)
  • Josh Currie (C) — 1 year, $700k, two-way (Played one game in the NHL and 24 in the AHL, where he captained Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and racked up 23 points in 24 games; will spend 2020-21 in the KHL)
  • Maxime Lagace (G) — 1 year, $700k, two-way (1 NHL appearance, nine AHL starts with a 4-3-3 record, .907 SV% and 2.30 GAA)

(The following week in 2020 free agency, the team added Cody Ceci and Sam Miletic.)

So, what can we learn from these early signings about how Jim Rutherford and Ron Hextall viewed their respective teams?

The main similarity: It’s a center’s world after all

It’s pretty easy to pick out what the Penguins’ main goal has been in these past two seasons of free agency: center depth.

It’s a puzzle that has persisted in the Penguins organization ever since Matt Cullen and Nick Bonino left after the 2017 championship: who can slot in behind Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin— and who can step in for one or both of the two superstars in case of injury— down the center of the Penguins lineup? In the following seasons, Pittsburgh has dressed everyone from Derick Brassard to Greg McKegg to Matt Cullen 2.0 to Nick Bjugstad without settling on a permanent third- or fourth-line center. Last year, that meant bringing in Jankowski, Angello and Gaudreau.

Last season’s mid-campaign acquisition of Jeff Carter looked like the closest the Penguins have come to a good fit on the third line since Brassard, but the news of Malkin’s offseason surgery changed that security down the center. Enter Heinen, and welcome back to a familiar face in Simon.

The main difference: Reshaping the opening-night roster

Of the Penguins’ early free-agent signings in 2020, only Jankowski skated on opening night.

Looking at 2021’s free agents, it seems like we’ll see certainly McGinn and Heinen on opening night— and it would not be surprising to see Simon and/or Rodrigues as well. Perhaps that speaks to the fact that the Penguins have more holes in their starting roster this offseason after losing two starts to the Seattle expansion draft in Jared McCann and Brandon Tanev. Still, neither the 2020 nor the 2021 crop of free agents contain any big names or game-breakers— both worked to tinker mainly with the bottom six forwards, not make any huge changes to the Penguins’ general identity.

So what do you think— do you like the Penguins’ free agents better this season than last year?


How would you grade this season’s free agency by the Penguins so far?

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