When the Pittsburgh Penguins entered the offseason prior to the 2022-23 season they had a pretty extensive list of unrestricted free agents, including Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Bryan Rust, and Rickard Rakell.
All of them were skilled and productive enough to keep, but there was a constant discussion as to whether or not they could, or even if they should.
In the end, they ended up keeping the entire band together and figured out a way to re-sign all of their big four, including Rakell who figured to only be a trade deadline rental (and it is a good thing they did keep him because he has been one of their best players so far this season, making every line and group he touches better).
The Penguins’ list of pending UFAs this season is not quite as impressive from a talent and name standpoint, but there are some fairly significant players on the list.
Let’s take a look at how they are doing and if they are making a statement to remain in Pittsburgh.
Jarry is the most complicated of the pending free agents because he is by far the most important.
Not only because of the position he plays, but because I have no idea what options the Penguins would have if they do not re-sign him.
Casey DeSmith is not a starter, they do not really have an in-house option that is close to being NHL ready, and the list of free agent goalies beyond Jarry is shockingly thin. I am not sure you are guaranteed to find a better option on the open market.
Adding to the complexity of a new deal for him is that he is not going to come cheap, and I still think there is some legitimate debate as to how good he actually is. His overall numbers the past two regular seasons have been fine, but he can be a little streaky in terms of going through runs where he looks like an above average starter, and others where he can not stop anything consistently.
There is also the fact we keep having the same discussion where we say, “The Penguins have a chance to compete for a championship .... as long as they get the goaltending.”
Goaltending remains the single biggest wild card and Achilles heel come playoff time and they keep bringing back the same players.
Jarry has played well enough to remain the Penguins starter and get a new contract, I just have no idea what that looks like and what would make sense for the Penguins. I also don’t know where they find a better option.
Brian Dumoulin has been a great Penguin and a major, MAJOR part of two Stanley Cup winning teams. He should forever have a place in Penguins history for those accomplishments. But unlike some of the other champions that got another deal with the Penguins, I can not see a viable reason — at this point — to bring Dumoulin back on another deal unless it is SEVERELY reduced with a much smaller role. He has not really bounced back the way I hoped after a down year, and it is just starting to look as if he might be on the downward swing of his career. It happens.
I really like Blueger, and I think this is one where it all comes down to cost.
His underlying numbers are never anything special, but he plays a MAJORLY defensive role and is a crucial element of the penalty kill.
I think he has more offensive game than he sometimes gets credit for, and has averaged around a 12-14 goal pace per 82 games despite low minutes and a role that is designed to shut down opposing offenses as opposed to create it for the Penguins.
If you can get him back for under $3 million I think you do it, as long as you keep it to a reasonable term.
He has been fine in a fourth line role, but what you see is what you get. He is completely replaceable. This seems like a one-and-done situation.
I loved the decision to bring Heinen back on a one-year deal because he was pretty productive and really cheap scoring depth. He had a great start this season, has cooled off considerably, and can be very streaky offensively. So far he has not quite played at the level we saw from him a year ago, but he is still a decent value at just a $1 million cap hit. Unless he really turns things around the rest of the way I have not seen a pretty convincing argument to bring him back for a third season.
Zucker is the most fascinating of the Penguins free agents to me because his career here has taken so many dramatic twists and turns.
He arrived with much fanfare as a key trade deadline addition to hopefully play alongside Sidney Crosby.
When that did not work out, the trade seemed like an overpay given the price they had to pay (a first-round pick and prospect Calen Addison whose career is off to a great start in Minnesota) and his contract.
Zucker always seemed to frustrate because he never scored as much as we wanted given that investment, while he also ran into seemingly constant injury problems. There was even a question as to whether or not the Penguins would look to dump his contract in a cap dump move.
Fortunately for them, they did not.
I have grown quite fond of Zucker for the way he plays, and his scoring is very misunderstood. He has scored at the exact same rate with the Penguins that he did with the Wild, and I think sometimes Penguins fans have a misunderstanding of what a normal top-six winger actually looks like. We have been so used to watching the world’s best players for the past 35 years that we sometimes look at a typical second-line player and say, “that’s it?!”
But really, that is what these guys do and what they produce.
Beyond that, Zucker’s game is more than just the goals he scores and the points he creates. He is relentless on the forecheck and simply the type of player you want to see grinding for pucks and making plays as a complement to somebody like Evgeni Malkin.
In theory, I would love to see him back.
But I fear his age and recent injury history on a long-term deal.
So in looking at these six pending unrestricted free agents at the moment I would place my order of priority as 1. Tristan Jarry, 2. Teddy Blueger, 3. Jason Zucker, while probably allowing Dumoulin, Archibald, and Heinen to reach the open free agent market.