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Free Agent Frenzy: What’s the craziest (while somewhat realistic) Penguins team you can build?

Johnny Gaudreau? Marc-Andre Fleury? Come on down and let’s get crazy

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Pittsburgh Penguins v Calgary Flames Photo by Gerry Thomas/NHLI via Getty Images

Scanning The Athletic yesterday, it was impossible not to see Hailey Salvian list Pittsburgh as a potential Johnny Gaudreau landing spot.

But should the Penguins lose one or both [Malkin/Letang], they will have significant money coming off the books and roster holes to fill while still being a cap team with Sidney Crosby as their captain. It’s also the first offseason under new ownership Fenway Sports Group, who have deep pockets and big ambitions.

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If it’s Malkin going elsewhere, do the Penguins try to find another 2C? Or perhaps the team moves Jeff Carter into that role and uses Malkin’s previously earmarked $9.5 million cap hit to sign a third-line centre and a top-six winger. Whether that’s just bringing back Rickard Rakell, or maybe looking at someone like Gaudreau remains to be seen.

That got my mind racing down a dangerous wormhole. Could the Penguins actually sign Johnny Gaudreau? Coming off a 115-point season, Gaudreau has got to be the biggest free agent out there. This concept of “having cap space” is really rare for the Penguins.

This wormhole led me to where else but CapFriendly and their “Armchair GM” feature, where people can mess around and create the lineup of their dreams.

This dream started practical enough — Evolving Hockey has Gaudreau’s projected contract at $10.8 million annually for eight years. That’s a lot of cheddar. But, hey, Artemi Panarin got an $11.6 million cap hit out of New York recently, so if $10.8 is the projected market value, that’s what I am going to use on a hypothetical seven year contract to get Gaudreau to Pittsburgh.

For the purposes of realism, I’m not going to indulge that all of the Pens’ least desirous contracts can be wiped away magically. I allowed one move — dealing Marcus Pettersson to Seattle for a third rounder in 2023 and a fourth rounder this season. That helps Pittsburgh replace some that they have traded lately. Seattle is an organization keen on analytics, and Pettersson has some cracker jack defensive metrics that should be understandably appealing to them. It’s not quite a “Colorado gets Devon Toews for two second round picks” caliber move, but Pettersson could do well with more ice time, and the Kraken could use more NHL caliber defensemen. (They also have a surplus of future draft picks to work with).

Feeling somewhat confident with that reasonable enough sounding rationale, it was time to move onto other decisions.

With Pettersson gone, I had the Pens re-sign Pierre-Olivier Joseph to a hypothetical one-way contract for league minimum and one year. Having Gaudreau eating up so much money, that likely means bidding farewell to Evgeni Malkin. Instead, I opted to keep Kris Letang at a hypothetical $7.75 million salary for four seasons, erring on the side of being conservative and inflating the contract.

Losing Malkin opens up a big hole on the center depth chart. Carter is around as an older center and I really didn’t want to add more age but after a great playoff I am thinking that Nick Paul has priced himself out of what I have left to offer. Luckily, there is a productive center who is nearing the end of his career, still productive and also has stated he “wants to win”. What better place than Pittsburgh?

I give Stastny a $2.5 million cap hit, which is a reduction from what he made last year, but the contract could be augmented with potential signing bonuses (that can roll over to next year’s cap if necessary) since he is a 35+ player. Call it the Jim Rutherford in me going all gas and no brakes for the short-term.

There’s one position left to resolve, and that is in net. The Penguins have been burnt two years in a row with the backup goalie hurt during the playoffs and really hampering their chances to win in the first round. Luckily, a durable goalie who wins a lot and just happens to be a franchise icon (and good, good friend of Sidney Crosby) is approaching free agency. That’s right, we’re making dreams come true today. Marc-Andre Fleury is back in Pittsburgh on a $2.5 million salary cap hit. If that’s not enough, sauce him some bonus money as well. Why not?

(It’s really easy to do this and spend money when it’s not yours).

My lower lines are somewhat sketchy, but it’s time for young players to step up. Can the Pens try to find a bargain free agent like this year’s version of Evan Rodrigues or Danton Heinen to come in for about a million bucks? Sure. I didn’t want to make any further assumptions, feeling like a trip into fantasy world has gone deep enough, but a veteran or two could be added. Better yet, I’d just cycle through younger players (including Valtteri Puustinen, who didn’t make my NHL lineup but certainly could be called up for looks and NHL playing time during the season as needed).

OK, the big reveal. My wheelings and dealings have netted the following, with a $1.3 million cushion for injury call-ups and banking for the future.

And here is a shot at the lines and depth chart:

Is this going to happen? Probably not. Ok, surely not as written, too many projections and assumptions were made and any of them might fall through. Maybe the Pens have to keep Pettersson and then have to downgrade from Gaudreau’s hefty salary down to the Rickard Rakell $5-millionish range instead. Maybe Letang won’t even sign for $7.75 million or Fleury won’t want to have a second chapter in Pittsburgh or Stastny might prefer a different market (or higher salary). Lots could feasibly go off the rails and sink the idea.

But a good off-season idea is worth fleshing out this time of year when teams are jockeying around and figuring how they can fit the pieces of the puzzle together. Given the example above, it does seem at least somewhat plausible that if Ron Hextall was really itching to majorly re-work the team (and impress ownership along the way) he conceivably could be a player for Gaudreau. I wouldn’t hold my breath or pre-order a Pens’ #13 jersey just quite yet, though.

So let’s see your ideas for a dream off-season. Fire ‘em off and make a case for how it could happen.