As the free agency dust settles and the future of the 2022-23 Penguins’ roster is practically in focus, the next shift is to look towards about 12 months from now for the next go-round in the contract cycle.
Summer 2022 was always such a major milestone to look forward to, with potentially franchise altering events ahead with the contract negotiations with Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang (and to a lesser but still important extent for Bryan Rust and Rickard Rakell). With all of those players in the fold for the foreseeable future, next summer won’t have so much by the way of free agent drama and contractual drama, but still will be important.
The Penguins have the following notable free agents following next season, listed by salary cap hit:
Jason Zucker, Brian Dumoulin, Tristan Jarry, Teddy Blueger, Danton Heinen, Josh Archibald, Ty Smith (RFA), Ryan Poehling (RFA).
Pittsburgh also gets some good news with the buyout penalty from ridding themselves of Jack Johnson falls from $1.916 million in 2022-23 by one million dollars to $916k in 2023-24, which opens up more room for next season.
The biggest name involved is probably starting goalie Tristan Jarry. As mentioned a little earlier this summer, the dollars Jarry will get is already in focus. He’s likely to sign for $5.25 - $5.75 million next summer, or something close to it. The question for the Pens to weigh is whether or not they want to give the six (or seven) years that Jarry could command and make that serious time commitment to the goalie. That decision is yet to play out, an answer could be obvious.
Brian Dumoulin looks like a player who has aged rapidly through recent injury woes, but he also is probably more capable/effective defensively when healthy than many still realize, considering his role and minutes he eats on the top pair. Especially when it comes to maintaining a steady defensive game, Dumoulin is still chugging along. I’m not sure it would be wise to hand out a contract to him to keep him for much of his 30’s (where further injury-induced skating issues could gradually or suddenly mount to limit his play), but it can’t be ignored that is a major player that will likely need to be replaced.
Certainly in the future, Pittsburgh would love to see a Smith and Pierre-Olivier Joseph group (and eventually 2022 first rounder Owen Pickering) lead the charge on the left side of their defense, but it remains to be seen if that future could truly begin in a major way in just 12 months.
Zucker has had a very unfulfilling Pittsburgh stint, the $5.5 million cap hit coming off the books could be a major opportunity to add a major contributor for 2023-24. One area teams have been doing lately (see: Pittsburgh with Rakell, Colorado with Artturi Lehkonen) has been finding ways to keep in-season trade pickup impending free agents to new contracts. That could be something to watch for as far as a potential semi-internal replacement for Zucker, should a trade be made at some point next year.
Staying up front, Teddy Blueger could be a casualty of numbers and the free agent market since the Pens have three centers already signed for 2023-24 in Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jeff Carter. That season could be the chance for Poehling to take over, if he earns a role and plays well in Pittsburgh this season. Or, the Pens might try to keep an important and good fourth liner in Blueger if they can make the price work.
Overall, CapFriendly shows the Pens having 15 players already under contract for 2023-24, with $63,416,842 in cap space already spoken for. League revenues will determine the salary cap, but the player’s outstanding balance on escrow from the COVID-era shortfalls is expected to mean another relatively flat upper limit still in 2023-24. That would put Pittsburgh with $20 million (or perhaps a bit more if the cap goes up) to fill the following holes via trades and free agency by the fall of 2023.
Jake Guentzel - Sidney Crosby - Bryan Rust
? - Evgeni Malkin - Rickard Rakell
? - Jeff Carter - Kasperi Kapanen
Brock McGinn - ? - ?
? / Kris Letang
Marcus Pettersson / Jeff Petry
? / Jan Rutta
Mark Friedman / Chad Ruhwedel
The other big news item to watch for is that on July 1, 2023 is the first day Pittsburgh can announce/negotiate a contract extension with Jake Guentzel. Guentzel will be a free agent after the 2023-24 season if not re-signed prior to that date. The last time around, former general manager Jim Rutherford signed Guentzel early (in December 2018 for a contract that didn’t begin until 2019-20) and it was one of the best transactions that Rutherford ever made in Pittsburgh.
Within a year after Guentzel signed, several of his peers moved the market (Sebastien Aho, Clayton Keller, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, Patrik Laine, Mikko Rantanen, etc) with huge contract extensions that dwarf even the $6.0 million average salary Guentzel is playing on, making Guentzel one of the league’s best “RFA/prime age” contract over the last few years.
This time around, Guentzel will have more leverage as an unrestricted free agent and has just seen players like Rust, Letang, Rakell and even Malkin secure a ton of money and years for the Penguins. Guentzel’s next contract with Pittsburgh will be interesting to watch. Recent contracts like Filip Forsberg, Johnny Gaudreau and Laine are pointing to at least $8.5 million, and possibly even more.
Thanks to Malkin and Letang taking relatively low cap hits, this could be an area Pittsburgh should be able to meet for Guentzel, if they want to do that. Luckily, the Pens still have two more seasons with Guentzel and his current cap hit, but taking care of him early would likely be another really good idea next summer to secure his services prior to the market being driven up even more.