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Decisions loom about the Pens’ impending restricted free agents

Ryan Poehling and Drew O’Connor are the two important RFA’s for the Pens this year

Ottawa Senators v Pittsburgh Penguins Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images

Now that the NHL season is complete and the hangovers in Las Vegas might be starting to set in, qualifying offers will be the next step of the off-season for NHL players. The Flyers have already sent some out, even though they are not due until June 30th.

Qualifying offers are not always a sure thing, and a lack of one isn’t a ticket out of town, which was the case for Danton Heinen last year. Under these tight flat salary cap years, teams can tend to be weary of players who if they get qualified can file for salary arbitration. That can lead to more than a team wants to pay in some cases, so it’s becoming more common like the Heinen situation for team’s to allow players to go into unrestricted free agency and attempt to sign them back through that if they still want them.

It’s the “if they still want them” part that looms heaviest for the Penguins this season. Kyle Dubas is the new sheriff in town and he wasn’t brought in because things are great and no changes need to be made, he came to Pittsburgh to put his stamp on the team in an effort to get them more competitive and improved. That process could begin with turning over some of the younger players. Then again, for an already old team, the value of these players in a lot of cases is evident too.

Here’s the list of restricted free agents for the Pens:

  • Drew O’Connor (arbitration eligible)
  • Ryan Poehling (arbitration eligible)
  • Ty Smith
  • Valtteri Puustinen (arbitration eligible)
  • Jonathan Gruden
  • Filip Hallander — signed in Sweden for five years
  • Colin Swoyer
  • Josh Maniscalco
  • Peter Diliberatore
  • Filip Lindberg — signed in Finland

The bottom five names are ones not worth considering too much, they’re strong candidates to move on from or in some cased have already done so themselves signing in Europe. It might not hurt for the Pens to keep Hallander’s NHL rights, just in case, but it doesn’t look it will bother helping either given the long-term commitment he made.

The top five players carry some interest, however. Gruden just turned 23, played three NHL games last season and has developed into one of the few halfway decent AHL players in Wilkes-Barre lately. Doesn’t seem like any reasons not to keep him around as deep organizational depth and see how next season goes.

Puustinen feels like a player Dubas could be intrigued by. The youngster has been productive everywhere he’s been, but without much opportunity to play NHL games. Given that Pittsburgh has practically zip, zero in terms of other skilled younger players who could appear as call-ups for the NHL next year, it might make sense to keep Puustinen. But, as always, where do they see him? A minor league stud? Too small or missing something to get a real chance in the NHL? Or will he earn a look? Interesting cross-roads this season for Puustinen, even though the question isn’t whether or not the Pens should bring him back so much as it is just what will they plan to do with him?

A lot about the above for Puustinen can apply straight away for Ty Smith. The first round pick in 2018 got his development backwards; going from juniors straight to the NHL with New Jersey for two years from 2020-22, then playing in the AHL for most of 2022-23 with the Pens. Is Smith a player Dubas wants to utilize in the future? No reason not to, but is it as trade bait? Pure depth at the NHL level? Or a spot somewhere for him to play games consistently? Lot up in the air to be figured out for what best to do with him.

O’Connor and Poehling could be in the similar positions as well. Both flashed a little at the NHL level, but for various reasons neither got over that 45-50ish game hump, played mainly on the fourth line in limited doses. That limited input will presumably keep the future salaries down, but accounting for teams operate these days, the nature of qualifying offers has become more questionable than ever. If Dubas just doesn’t see it for either player as being part of the future, they won’t be back. Without knowing what he is trying to build, it’s guesswork as to whether or not these two have done enough.

Based on interviews and prior quotes, the positive news for both is it does sound like Mike Sullivan is relatively fond of both of these two as players. From looking at usage, this could go particularly Poehling who was played as the eighth highest forward for TOI per game in the last quarter of the season. O’Connor was 10th in that period and has tended to be more praised by the coaching staff than played often times nonetheless.

Depending on how Dubas sees his bottom-six being built this summer, it could be plausible that neither, either or both of these players are back for next season. Given what should be reasonable salaries, familiarity with coach and decent enough projections, perhaps it will be more on the keep side for both cases. The Pens don’t have that much youth and it’s not always easy to find 24-25 year old NHL capable talent to join the organization.

Without that much drama needing to come from restricted free agents this summer, Dubas and the Pens will then have to enter the deep waters when it comes to goalie situations and what could be a wild ride with adding or replacing some forwards to round out the team in the unrestricted free agent pool.