When the Seattle Kraken expansion draft was looming last summer, the Penguins had to decide between three of the five players to protect between: Jared McCann, Branon Tanev, Teddy Blueger, Jeff Carter and Kasperi Kapanen.
They ended up losing two players, first by trading McCann to Toronto and then by watching Seattle take Tanev.
This strategy back fired on the Pens, who went on to watch McCann score 27 goals and 50 points with the Kraken, vastly out-performing several of the players they chose to keep over him. The move was compounded by Brock McGinn being an unfulfilling replacement in Tanev’s spot, for not much of a savings in money and none in contract term.
With that in mind, when it comes to the decisions this off-season around Evan Rodrigues, could that become next year’s version of the expansion draft as far as regrettable and bigger losses than the team anticipated?
Rodrigues (finally) signed a contract almost two months after free agency opened yesterday. All things considered, it’s a really great position to land in as he will join the champion Colorado Avalanche for a decent $2.0 million payday and should be in a spot to have a great season and be in position to sign for even more next summer should this year continue to launch his stock.
The Penguins practically closed the door on Rodrigues in July the moment that they decided to send a qualifying offer to Kapanen. Due to nature of arbitration — and the eventual $3.2 million contract signed by Kapanen — as soon as that offer was made, the space and spot on the depth chart for Rodrigues was essentially sealed off.
One doesn’t have to strain too much to point out this will mark the second year in a row that Pittsburgh has favored Kapanen over another skilled forward (McCann last year, now Rodrigues this time around). There were other decisions to spend money along the way, like re-signing Rickard Rakell and Bryan Rust, but those players have long been in different and bigger roles.
With limited space and only so many roles on the right wing, it was likely keep one of Kapanen or Rodrigues for general manager Ron Hextall and company in 2022-23.
In that sense, the pressure and real need for the Pens to get a major contribution out of Kapanen this season could be an even bigger storyline than before. Should Rodrigues improve on his 19-goal 43-point season from last year and give a contender a great supporting piece of the puzzle, it won’t be lost on many that he could have been doing it in Pittsburgh instead.
And yet, due to other decisions, that won’t be in the cards. Hextall, coach Mike Sullivan and the Pens have long been believers and supporters of the talent and skill of Kapanen and that he can take that next step into being a key player on the team, and they have had to make some difficult and painful decisions that the salary cap (and expansion) made unavoidable.
Now the Pens better hope they were right and the decision of that mid-level supporting player goes better in 2022-23 than it did last year with the Kraken expansion decisions.