It only took a few hours in free agency yesterday for new President of Hockey Operations Kyle Dubas to drastically make his mark on the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Pens brought in seven total signings (with probably about five as NHL players) in addition to the move earlier in the week that brought in Reilly Smith. There were forwards, a defenseman and two goalies. It filled needs, it changed what the team looks like.
Welcome to the Penguins:— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) July 2, 2023
• Reilly Smith
• Ryan Graves
• Noel Acciari
• Alex Nedeljkovic
• Matt Nieto
• Lars Eller
• Joona Koppanen
• Ryan Shea
And welcome back Tristan Jarry! https://t.co/ObGqsqlPKB
After all this whirlwind of activity, it’s time to sort through what happened and where things could go from here, in the form of some self-provided questions.
#1: Who was the Penguins best signing yesterday? And who was the worst?
On the surface it seems like a contradiction to call giving a six-year contract to a 28-year old a “best” deal, but in the context of where the team is at, the Ryan Graves signing could be just that for the Pens. The best free agent defensemen were seen as Graves and Dmitry Orlov. Orlov took a short two-year term to boost up a massive $7.75 million cap hit. The Pens got Graves on a $4.5m cap hit, in the same range as what Radko Gudas ($4.0m), Shayne Gostisbehere ($4.15m) and John Klingberg ($4.15m) signed for across the league. Just last summer, Ben Chariot ($4.75mx4) and Erik Gudbranson ($4.0x4) were in the same range and are older/inferior players to Graves.
Pittsburgh did give up term, which risks pain towards the end of the contract— but that can be overlooked for the big win of getting a solid top-four player on what is a great value on the cap number, especially relative to how free agency usually goes for top defenders.
In some quarters, the Tristan Jarry deal is getting panned as uninspiring at best, and a potential problem at worst. Five years is a long time to commit to a goalie, and a $5.375 million cap hit makes Jarry the 12th highest paid netminder in the league next season (via cap hit). The NHL is littered with goalies signing big tickets and not living up to them (Jack Campbell and Cal Petersen as pertinent recent examples). It is reasonable that Jarry, at the most important position on the ice, is naturally the biggest “sink or swim” influence and could make or break the team’s future, his contract was, if not the “worst”, certainly the one with the biggest risk attached given the amount and length.
#2: What grades for fit and contract value do you give the signings?
Graves: Fit: A, Contract Value: B+ (see above)
Jarry: Fit: A, Contract Value: C
Noel Acciari: Fit: A, Contract Value: C (Acciari will be a fan favorite/moderate cult hero type in no time flat. He’s like Josh Archibald but 30 pounds heavier and with more goal scoring touch. Shades of Brandon Tanev too. Three years for a grinder is unimpressive, but the player is solid).
Lars Eller: Fit: B-, Contract Value D (The cap hit isn’t excessive- but on a team of old centers, adding another one isn’t the best, especially with Eller’s play fading last season. There were younger alternatives who already signed for cheaper like Michael McLeod, Christian Fischer and Morgan Geekie).
Matt Nieto: Fit: B, Contract Value A (Has a cap hit that can be fully buried if necessary but likely won’t be. As Dubas mentioned, this is a player he has long admired and wanted to add)
—The common theme is finding good fits. All three of the bottom-six forwards offer good defensive impacts and will also boost the PK. They should also be good for coach Mike Sullivan’s system. Taken together, it’s a cohesive group that was assembled that definitely has a lot of similar profiles and looks to add where the team was previously lacking.
—The added center depth with Eller and Acciari should help too. Carter and Teddy Blueger were both living in that 42% xGF% area of doom last year. Eller’s offense is drying up, but he should be able to eat tough minutes/starts and help the team to a better process than they got out of their bottom-six centers last season, which will be a subtle but important upgrade.
#3: Should we take Dubas at his word that he would be surprised if the roster is different heading into the season compared to what it looks like currently?
On this, I say no. Erik Karlsson’s situation is one of the closest monitored right now, and by all accounts from national media types, the Penguins are working hard to try and make it happen to bring the Norris winner to Pittsburgh. In some ways, the situation is analogous to the Phil Kessel move in 2015 - you have a superstar player with a huge contract. It would be a bold move to add Karlsson, but the Pens likely need still some sort of boost/improvement to add to the group if they want to be better. They didn’t change goalies, their bottom six is now solid (but not standouts).
And, though Dubas said by his internal calculations that he considers the team well under the cap at this point, that math doesn’t add up to what is on the books. It’s also difficult to ignore that Mikael Granlund’s cap hit plus Jeff Petry’s is virtually the same as Karlsson’s $11.5m. It will take the creativity Dubas has mentioned like involving three teams in a trade, and/or salary retentions and/or salary dumps to jockey things around. All options are conceivable, and it will require something ambitious to get it done.
In some ways, Dubas isn’t lying about the current situation though. If he wants it to be about done, the roster in place now largely could be how it looking on opening night.
- The top-six forward group is complete given the addition of Smith and the departure of Jason Zucker.
- Three signings for the bottom six, plus holdovers like Carter and Drew O’Connor means the bulk of those lines are more or less what they’re going to be.
- If the Pens don’t make any further moves, they have a decent top-four defense in place with Kris Letang, Marcus Pettersson, Jeff Petry and now Graves.
- Their goalie situation might be unsettled for the backup as of now (or have a relatively high-priced goalie buried in the minors) but keeping Jarry sets the course now.
It doesn’t benefit Dubas to show outward ambition about Karlsson or tip his hand about what could be still to come. He might rightfully feel like the team is just about built, but if he has the opportunity to move enough pieces around (Petry, Granlund, maybe Jan Rutta) in order to bring in Karlsson, that’s a massive change that isn’t guaranteed to happen but certainly at this point is within the realm of possibilities, even if understandably Dubas isn’t looking to share that information at this time.