Ahh, the off-season. The Cup has been lifted, the games are over. The summer heat is about to set in. Is it hard to believe that it’s been now two months since the Penguins last played a game? Soon after was when we set out this course of action for this pivotal and important off-season. Now seemed like as good a time as any to check back in on it, remind you of some important dates as the flurry of activity is soon to approach.
Step 1: Hire new leadership
Well, give this one a hearty check and mark it off the list. It took almost six weeks from the firing of Brian Burke/Ron Hextall to the naming of Kyle Dubas as technically President of Hockey Operations, but effectively the chief decision maker for the Pens now no matter the title. Based on the votes and input of the reaction, folks are energized about the direction of the team. But now that Dubas is settling in, it’s time to get to work.
Step 2: Lottery draft, real draft
The Pens had over a 90% chance of keeping the 14th overall spot in the NHL’s draft lottery proceedings last month, and lo and behold, they ended up being awarded the 14th overall selection in the draft. No shock win to be had this year, but still the team’s best spot to pick from in now over a decade.
The NHL draft is coming up, in fact it begins two weeks from tonight on Wednesday June 28 (7pm eastern on ESPN if you’re setting a mental reminder) for Round 1. Round 2-7 follows on the next day, Thursday June 29 starting at 11am.
Pittsburgh doesn’t have a lot of good stuff to offer out in trade negotiations, but their first pick would carry some value. Will they flip it for immediate NHL help? Or use the pick for themselves? It’ll be hotly debated right up until the decision is made.
Step 3: Buyouts and early trades
The buyout window is almost here. The first window, where teams most commonly use it, opens 48 hours after the Stanley Cup Final ends. That has already ticking if Vegas skated off with it last night, so the buyout process (which starts with players being waived and takes a day to complete) is almost upon us.
The buyout window is open for a while, right up until June 30th, which is worth sticking in the memory banks too. This will give Dubas some time through the draft to see how much salary he can or might be adding through trades, if he wants to use it — which could let him know if he needs to open up $4.1 million in cap space for 2023-24 by buying out Mikael Granlund, for instance.
As mentioned above, select teams will be able to utilize a second buyout window later in the summer for a limited amount of time following all arbitration cases. Only teams that have a player go through the arbitration process get that second window.
This is typically unlikely - the Pens haven’t had a player go through arbitration since at least 2008 when CapFriendly has records of it, and likely well before. Across the whole league only two players (Yakov Trenin; NSH 2022 and Tyler Bertuzzi; DET in 2020) have had the whole case play out without the player and team settling and agreeing on a contract prior to the process playing out.
Long story short: the Pens do have a two players who could opt for arbitration this summer (assuming they are given qualifying offers) but plan on just the one buyout window in June.
Step 4: Make a decision on a goalie
The goaltender situation received some attention at the introductory press conference for Dubas earlier this month.
Dubas on evaluating Jarry: "I will rely on Andy Chiodo (goalie coach) and Mike Sullivan about what he's all about as a person. I will try to meet him and get to know him myself. Then we will be doing a very thorough evaluation of Tristan and review where he stands in the…— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) June 1, 2023
Following Dubas returning from the NHL Draft combine in Buffalo last week, we are probably deep into that “very thorough evaluation” where he is gathering information, getting a sense of just what the people in the organization think of Jarry and what the future could be.
Jarry is an impending unrestricted free agent on July 1, if he isn’t re-signed ahead of that point. For a player whose status has remained unclear for so long lately, it seems only fitting to hang in the balance for a bit longer — but one way or another decisions are looming pretty quickly to fish or cut bait.
Step 5: Jeff Carter end game
It is probably only wishful thinking and a dream at this point that the Pens sidestep Jeff Carter next season. The veteran has a full no movement clause, and the team has no financial benefit to buying him out. Carter has given no indications of doing anything other than being a Pittsburgh Penguin next year. Management hasn’t tipped any signals to the contrary either of some strong arming or devious “retirement” plan being forced upon the respected veteran.
So, admitting defeat, we might not truly be at “end game” status for Carter just yet, but given his consistent downward trend in usage over the latter part of the season, the phase out might continue to happen too slowly for many’s liking.
Step 6: Free agency with forwards on the mind
For good reason, there was a lot of focus on the supporting lower line players in Pittsburgh last year and the troubles in that department. Dubas might be thinking a little of a bigger picture though when he mentioned considering adding “another piece” to the elite players, presumably in the spot opening up when and if Jason Zucker skates into free agency in a few weeks.
Dubas on what he's looking for in players: "Sully and I had a very brief discussion on this. The top end of the forward group is very, very good... Do we need another piece there to put us over the top? Then it's what types of players do we want in the bottom half of our lineup…— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) June 1, 2023
Sullivan and Dubas still have time to get on the same page in the next few weeks about the types of players they think could contribute and in which type of roles.
Here were the lower lines for Toronto’s last game, by the way:
Michael Bunting - Ryan O’Reilly - Noel Acciari
XXXXX - David Kampf - Sam Lafferty
Scratches: Matthew Knies (injury), Zach Aston-Reese, Wayne Simmonds
The Leafs were only using 11 forwards and rotating a top-six winger on for extra shifts on the fourth line, where presumably Knies would have found a jersey and spot in the lineup if healthy. Otherwise, they had some defensive stoppers, grinders, energy players and a bit of scoring punch as well.
Dubas won’t have Pittsburgh’s bottom-six that complete for next season by July 2nd, but that perhaps gives a roadmap of what he might be looking to build. It might be worth remembering that six of the above eight names are scheduled to be free agents, and while the math (particularly on Bunting, who is due a big raise) isn’t going to allow Dubas to sign them all even if he wanted to, it might not be a total shock.
The NHL off-season can be described as “hurry up and wait”, but the activity usually picks up around the draft and that date is rapidly approaching. We’ve made it through almost two months, what’s another two weeks?