It has been a mostly successful offseason for general manager Ron Hextall and the Pittsburgh Penguins.
He managed to get Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Bryan Rust, and Rickard Rakell all re-signed for decent salary cap numbers. The defense has (in this view) been upgraded with the addition of Jeff Petry (and the wild card that is Ty Smith). They also managed to bring back Danton Heinen on a bargain contract after a really successful debut season with the team.
But the work is not done as there are still some questions that remain a little more than a month before training camps open.
Is the bottom-six good enough?
With Malkin, Rust, and Rakell all back in the mix, and Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel still in place, the top-six looks mostly set. And very good. Even though the second-line still has a question mark next to Malkin and Rakell, a healthy Jason Zucker or (hopefullly) a resurgent Kasperi Kapanen might be able to adequately fill that spot.
The bottom-six, though, is a bit of a question.
Jeff Carter is almost certainly penciled in to center the third line, and based on the way he finished last season and is going to be a year older I am not sure how much he has left in the tank to be an impact player in that spot. The other five spots figure to be filled by some combination of Kapanen, Heinen, Zucker, (at least two of them; whoever is not on the second line), Ryan Poehling, Teddy Blueger, Brock McGinn, Josh Archibald, and Drew O’Connor.
On one hand, the Penguins’ bottom-six tended to perform better than it was given credit for a year ago.
When neither Crosby or Malkin was on the ice during 5-on-5 play last season the Penguins outscored teams by a 102-90 margin and had a better than 53 percent share of the total shot attempts, expected goals, and scoring chances. Pretty good numbers overall.
Those numbers remained strong for most of the season, but started to tail off a bit over the final 15 games of the regular season. Carter started to slow down, Zach Aston-Reese and Dominik Simon were gone, and they just were not quite as effective as a group.
Is this current crop of potential players any better? Poehling has potential, but has not yet proven it consistently. My expectations for Archibald are minimal at best, and anybody that thinks they know what to expect from Kapanen or Zucker is kidding themselves.
This is where I think the signing of Rutta, and the contract for Kapanen, are the weak links of the offseason. That could have been an extra $6 million in salary cap space to help address those spots, and that does not even take into account the $2 million that is going to Brock McGinn. I keep thinking about Nino Niederreiter signing for $4 million per season and how somebody like that could have looked in a Penguins uniform this season.
The salary cap
The Penguins are still a little over $1 million over the cap and will need to shed some salary to not only get cap compliant, but also leave themselves with some flexibility for the trade deadline or an in-season addition.
Is there a taker for Zucker’s contract?
Does Kapanen’s contract make him potentially tradable?
Or do they make another move on defense with somebody like a Marcus Pettersson or Brian Dumoulin?
As much sense as it would make to maybe deal Dumoulin, that seems almost impossible to see happening given the fact he still plays next to Kris Letang and the Penguins still seem to value him so highly and are hoping for a bounce back.
Trading Pettersson would really result in a significant overhaul of a defense that has already seen Mike Matheson and John Marino leave, with Jeff Petry, Ty Smith, and Jan Rutta entering.
The goalie question again
It is no secret that goaltending has been the Penguins’ biggest Achilles Heel the past two seasons in the playoffs.
That makes the decision to bring back exactly the same goaltending duo to be an interesting choice.
On one hand, Jarry earned the right to remain the starter. He bounced back in a huge way during the regular season and played like a legitimate No. 1 starter. He just happened to be injured in the playoffs.
Bringing back Casey DeSmith to be the top backup is the more curious decision. Not only has he been inconsistent the past two seasons and had lengthy stretches of poor play, he has alsos been injured in the past two playoffs. Bad luck? Sure. But availability is important, especially at this position, and DeSmith has not consistently provided that or strong play.
I think if there is a criticism to be had for the offseason, it should rest either here or in the handling of the bottom-six. Toward the end of the Ray Shero/Dan Bylsma era we saw top-heavy Penguins teams with weak bottom sixes struggle in the playoffs because they did not have the necessary depth at forward to compete for or win the Stanley Cup. The past two years we have seen what sort of impact goaltending can have. Those are the spots that might end up being the biggest issues. Again.