With the curtain going up on the playoffs and the Penguins having their season ended, a lull is bound to set in leading up to the important moments that will happen in the next few weeks and months. Here’s a good starting point to keep in mind as the process begins.
Step 1: Hire new leadership
It goes without saying but nothing can happen until the Penguins install their new hockey operations department. Every other step is contingent on getting the new management team in place. As of a few days ago, Step 1 would have been to fire the GM, so this is already underway as it needed to be.
There is no huge rush at this point in mid-April, but in the days and weeks ahead the first decision about who is calling the shots is going to be the most crucial one of the off-season in Pittsburgh.
Step 2: Lottery draft, real draft
The lottery draft is May 8th. Overwhelmingly the Penguins are set to have the 14th pick, but you never know what could happen. In the slight chance that jumps to fourth overall, the outlook on the off-season takes a very pleasant turn and could give Pittsburgh a potential impact player in the near future.
More than likely, though, the team needs to just what value a mid-round pick has. Do they take an 18-year old player who likely will be a few years away from making an impact? Or look to flip that pick for an instant contributor who can help right now?
Step 3: Buyouts and early trades
For years the Pens have avoided dead salary cap space, and that is never a good handcuff for a team to place upon themselves, but being salary inefficient is also sometimes necessary to improve the on-ice product. Can the team trade players like Mikael Granlund, Jan Rutta and Jeff Petry? If so, they should probably shake it up the most that they can.
If not, buyouts should be strongly considered. Buying out Granlund, for instance, adds $4.1 million to next year’s available cap space (and then is a $1.8 million penalty for the three seasons afterwards). Can you use that gained $3.2 million in space to find a more impactful player than Granlund? It would seem so. In that case, pulling the trigger on a buyout if there are no trade takers might make sense.
Jeff Petry’s potential buyout would carry cap hits of $3.0 and $4.5 million over the next two seasons. With math like that, the conclusion might be to keep him and hope for better next season, being as it would be tough to replace a 20+ minute a night player on the restrictions that a buyout imposes.
Step 4: Make a decision on a goalie
Tristan Jarry needs a contract. The unrestricted free agency pool of goaltenders is not very enticing or filled with starting goalie talent. Which, given how that went last year for netminders might not be a bad thing. Free agent goalies are a crapshoot. And when they change teams goalies who performed poorly might improve (Ilya Samsonov and Matt Murray, among others in recent times) but stronger goalies can regress and play poorly (Jack Campbell, Ville Husso).
The direction of the starting goalie is arguably the most pressing and critical decision the Pens will have to make. Do they invest in Tristan Jarry and bet his injuries will not limit him? Do they move onto the trade market and try to pursue a different candidate? There are far more questions than actionable answers at this point but a course must be set before July 1st.
Step 5: Jeff Carter end game
On breakdown day, Jeff Carter indicated he intends to finish out his contract playing in 2023-24. At this point, there is no reason the player wouldn’t have such a stance.
However, this is where the new management team will need to get uncomfortable and be willing to “crack a few eggs” to make the proverbial omelet - because there is no way that Carter should be an active player for the Pens next year. If he truly is unwilling to unofficially retire over the off-season and the team+player can’t find a different spot that he wants to go to (that would also want him), then the Pens’ options are limited.
Even if they have to keep his cap hit and buy him out to gain no financial advantage, that option should also be on the table, especially since the 35+ buyout only has one season worth of a penalty. Improving the on ice component is just as valuable as the financial situation, and Carter simply can’t be a part of the team any further. Regardless of the machination of it being a retirement, trade or buyout, wrapping up Carter’s stint on the ice must be the objective accomplished.
Failure to take this difficult and uncomfortable step would be a major letdown and hamper the future. Even if Carter is brought back with the fourth line low minute role in mind that he filled from the All-Star break on this year, that doesn’t mesh with the style or tempo of what the Pens should be looking to create next year.
Step 6: Free agency with forwards on the mind
Particularly if the team is able to be successful in earlier steps, they’ll have a sufficient amount of money to attempt to do what the last GM couldn’t: build the supporting cast. The decisions made will be critical, but need to incorporate adding speed, size, some relative youth, whatever the Pens can get to turn over as much of their bottom-six with replacements that can provide more help.
The team will also then have to decide on what Jason Zucker’s price is and if they feel they can meet it. That will be a tough call, but the only good news is they have cap space to work with and in today’s NHL where very good players sometimes can be had for nothing but the cost of their contracts (Marc-Andre Fleury, Max Pacioretty, etc) that is a good spot to be in when it comes to exploring options that could exist from other teams potentially in a pinch.
As of now, we’ll wait and watch for Step 1 to be completed and then see how the other items on the checklist play out.