It’s been about a month since our last check in on the Penguins’ off-season road map of items to do and decisions to make. In that time, the NHL’s biggest summer moments have come and gone with the draft and opening day of free agency passing with the flurry of activity that always sees players coming in and going out.
Let’s catch up and reset.
Step 1: Hire new leadership
Long done. In some ways it’s hard to imagine that both it’s only been three months and it’s already been three months since the first version of the checklist. At that point the future was still so wide open that replacing Ron Hextall was the first key decision. A lot has happened since then, but it’s only been a few months of a transitional year off the ice in Pittsburgh.
Step 2: Lottery draft, real draft
Turns out that Kyle Dubas kept his first round pick, selected talented forward Brayden Yager and will now hope in the coming years that he can develop into an NHL contributor. Otherwise the draft passed without too much intrigue or big movement for the Pens.
Step 3: Buyouts and early trades
There were no buyouts and Dubas has only made two trades so far. One was minor to add a seventh round pick last year and move down one spot in the third round. The other was significant, in adding Reilly Smith and his productive pedigree for a third round pick in a salary dump for Vegas.
The most oft-rumored trade remains unrealized with negotiations between Pittsburgh, San Jose (and Carolina) jockeying to see what the best option for all parties is regarding the future of Erik Karlsson. With a full no movement clause, Karlsson has just as big of a say as anyone in the process.
Step 4: Make a decision on a goalie
The major decision was made, but it took after the start of free agency to bring Tristan Jarry back on a high-dollar, long-ish term five year deal that will see him be the Pens’ goalie of significance for the foreseeable future.
However, there could be more decisions to make after the somewhat surprising signing of Alex Nedeljkovic and his non-AHL friendly salary of $1.5 million. Magnus Hellberg was also added as a free agent on a one-way contract. This could foretell the Penguins loading up on quantity and significant depth at the position, or it could also mean Casey DeSmith’s status with the team moving forward could be up in the air. Time will tell, but with all the goalies the Pens now have options as to what they want to do with them.
Step 5: Jeff Carter end game
It’s been a quiet off-season for Carter. The Pens have loaded up on centers in free agency (Lars Eller, Noel Acciari) and a ton of depth options that could make realistic cases to make the team (Matt Nieto, Andreas Johnsson, Vinnie Hinostroza). Will Carter remain in the top-12 and a regular player next season? Will the team scratch or minimize his usage? That question won’t be answered until the fall, but a common emerging theme is that Dubas has brought in plenty of potential options for Mike Sullivan to consider.
Step 6: Free agency with forwards on the mind
Dubas indicated in his opening press conference that the Pens would be active in free agency in trying to add players to fit a profile and help round out the team. That came to pass as expected with the names listed above. Most profile and have a lot of commonalities to be defensively responsible players that forecheck hard, are good in board battles and ideally will help stabilize the team if the plan works to its best.
At worst, there was not a lot of youth injected, nor was there a lot of offensive upside or skill added to the team. As usual, results will likely fall somewhere in the middle of best and worst case scenarios.
That covers the existing road map we laid out back in April, and many items have been completed by this point. With much of the important decisions made, now comes new items to consider.
Step 7: Resolution to the Erik Karlsson chase
Can the Pens make the money work and win the Karlsson derby? It’s a question that has been hanging out in public for weeks now, with various twists and turns along the way. At this point, per a Monday night update from Elliotte Friedman, it does not look like Pittsburgh has closed the door completely — yet at the same time the very real hurdles still remain. Sooner or later, Dubas (and San Jose....and Karlsson) will all have to come to a decision and complete the trade or move on. Of course, if Carolina or someone else steps up, that decision might be made for the Pens just the same.
Step 8: Jake Guentzel extension
Jake Guentzel is entering his walk year, and the time is right to start thinking and talking extension. Seemingly gone are the days where players and teams are in a huge rush to get contracts out of the way, and both sides do still almost have a full year before he hits free agency. As we’ve seen lately with Jarry, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang - and to a lesser extent Bryan Rust and Rickard Rakell, there doesn’t have to be a hurry to get a long-term deal done, but sooner or later it will need to get done.
Step 9: Restricted free agents
The Pens have three RFA’s in Drew O’Connor, Ty Smith and Jonathan Gruden left to sign. O’Connor is the most prominent, and the only player of the group with arbitration rights. He should be agreeing to a one or two year deal in the coming weeks prior to his scheduled August 4th hearing.
Smith and Gruden have almost no leverage and will likely both be signing short-term deals. Neither is a huge priority on time at the moment, but will need to be taken care of prior to training camp.
Step 10: Cap compliance
This area will be tied up in whatever happens with the Karlsson trade happening or not happening. Per CapFriendly, the Pens are slightly over the upper limit, though Dubas was non-bothered by this in a July press conference and indicated his projections showed the team within compliance. Something will have to give to make that math come into focus in the future, but whether that is a trade of someone like DeSmith or someone with a salary certainly will be dictated based on the dominoes yet to fall.