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Looking at the depth options in the bottom six

The Penguins have a lot of quantity. Will it lead to quality?

Pittsburgh Penguins v Florida Panthers Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

Mike Sullivan said the Penguins wanted to build up their minor league team and depth back in May, and you really have to give it to the Penguins (and their ownership) for making a significant investment to make that happen. It’s not cheap or easy to build up some quality depth, but the Pens have done that to the extreme in the opening days of free agency.

In addition to the standard additions that Pittsburgh needed to make to improve their bottom-six (think the multi-year deals and significant money to Lars Eller and Noel Acciari), Kyle Dubas has had free reign to make a lot of moves to add — at somewhat significant expense — some “AAAA” level players to help the team. These are guys who could be AHL difference makers, and NHL injury replacements, if they don’t win a job outright in training camp.

To which, figures and details courtesy of CapFriendly:

  • Joona Koppanen (all of five career NHL games): $475,000 downside guarantee in 2023-24, one-way $775,000 salary in 2024-25
  • Andreas Johnsson: $800k one-way contract
  • Magnus Hellberg: $785k one-way contract
  • Ryan Shea: $775k one-way contract
  • Vinnie Hinostroza: $775k one-way contract
  • Alex Nylander: $775k one-way contract (signed prior to Dubas’ hiring)
  • Will Butcher: $425k downside guarantee
  • Radim Zohorna: $375k downside

One can possibly even include Alex Nedeljkovic and his $1.5 million salary being potentially in the mix too as an extra investment, barring any future transactions at the goalie position. Either way, it’s a lot of extra money piled into giving the Pens a lot of options and significant depth at all three positions of forward, defense and goal for next season.

With due respect to all of the defenders and goalies listed (Shea, Butcher, Hellberg and Nedeljkovic) a lot of the intrigue and attention will surround the bottom-six.

As we pointed out and wrote in the “where Ron Hextall went wrong” post-mortem, the 5v5 numbers for the Pens last year tell the tale of why they missed the playoffs in a simple but definitive breakdown.

With both Crosby+Malkin on the ice: 1 goal for, 0 goals against (+1)
Crosby on the ice: 67 goals for, 51 goals against (+16)
Malkin on the ice: 53 goals for, 50 goals against (+3)
When neither Crosby or Malkin were on ice: 47 goals for, 71 goals against (-24)

Addressing that, particularly the 71 goals given up by the third and fourth lines was the focus of the Penguins by attempting to bring on more defensively responsible players who in theory should be able to cut that down.

As of now, the Pens are set in the top-six with Reilly Smith coming in to replace Jason Zucker and the five returnees set in stone (87, 71, 59, 67, 17).

Unless something happens, Mikael Granlund is still around. Jeff Carter too makes for quite the elephant in the room as a fading player that still was respected by the coaching staff last year. (And while no one wants to hear it, Carter’s faceoff stats as a top-five player in the league does add some positive element).

Add in restricted free agent Drew O’Connor, and the current outlook of the bottom-six could be as follows:

Mikael Granlund - Lars Eller - AAAAAA
BBBBBB - Noel Acciari - CCCCCC

Even though the Pens have a TON of available options, they might not have that many spots. Eller was cited by Dubas in a press conference as being in the third line center role for next season.

The “A” placeholder could be Matt Nieto, who on a two-year contract and the way Dubas talked him up is likely to be an NHL lineup player somewhere. If not, perhaps O’Connor can earn a key spot and Granlund could bump over to the right wing.

The fourth line could depend on what the Pens want to do with Carter. Will he be a lineup player? If so, he and Acciari might rotate between center and right wing on that line. Then things open up. The odd-man out between Nieto/O’Connor? Andreas Johnsson? Alex Nylander? Vinnie Hinostroza? The choices are out there to see which players flourish in training camp.

The unmentioned factor would be if the Pens find a way to remove Granlund from the roster. That opens up salary space for the opportunity to get even more new faces involved (as in a free agent or whomever Granlund gets traded for) to totally change the mix of the bottom-six.

When injuries inevitably strike. all the investment to add solid NHL caliber names should go a long way in boosting the Pens to being competitive through tough times. That will help in the longer term, but there will be a lot of intrigue heading into camp on how Sullivan will situate the pieces that he has to work with coming out the gates.