Every once in a while, usually about this time of year in August when things are running dry, it’s fun to put on a prognosticator’s cap and do the impossible to attempt to predict the future. Here’s what I came up with for a potential lineup for 2023-24 back in August 2022.
Jake Guentzel - Sidney Crosby - Bryan Rust
? - Evgeni Malkin - Rickard Rakell
? - Jeff Carter - Kasperi Kapanen
Brock McGinn - ? - ?
? / Kris Letang
Marcus Pettersson / Jeff Petry
? / Jan Rutta
Mark Friedman / Chad Ruhwedel
It just goes to show how much can change in an instant in the NHL. 12 months ago the thought that Ron Hextall would be out might not have been absurd, but all the roster movement has been a wild ride, during and after Hextall’s stint.
Hextall started to clean up his own mess by getting out from Kapanen and McGinn, Dubas continued that trend by paring away Petry and Rutta. DeSmith got caught up in the numbers of making the cap work. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like anyone can clean up Jeff Carter’s contract until it ends following this season.
I was reluctant last summer to envision futures in Pittsburgh for lineup staples of Jason Zucker, Brian Dumoulin, Tristan Jarry and Teddy Blueger. With the exception of Jarry, all have moved on.
The above puts in light what Dubas has done in a short time to revamp the defense. P.O. Joseph has developed into an NHL option, but adding Ryan Graves and Erik Karlsson really moved the needle for the Penguins. In the above, there are a lot of question marks on the blueline, even if they were filled with a name. Now, a lot of those issues have been resolved and upgrades issued for 2023-24 considering the atmosphere of what it was looking like last summer at this time.
So while it’s impossible to see the future exactly, here’s how things are shaping up for Pittsburgh in 2024-25 - a full year early.
2024-25 Penguins outlook
Jake Guentzel - Sidney Crosby - Rickard Rakell
Reilly Smith - Evgeni Malkin - ?
? - ? - Bryan Rust
Drew O’Connor - Lars Eller - Noel Acciari
Marcus Pettersson / Erik Karlsson
Ryan Graves / Kris Letang
P.O. Joseph / ?
The road ahead
While summer 2023 saw a major defensive overhaul in Pittsburgh, we’re seeing and predicting that next summer should be heavily forward-focused for the Penguins.
The salary cap may open up - though unless the NHL and NHLPA agree on a different course, the maximum is set to only increase up to 5% due to the 2020 memorandum of understanding in the CBA. That would mean a new upper limit at $87.675 million in 2024-25 compared to what it will be in 2023-24 ($83.5 million), at the most.
With that in mind, the 14 above players in regular font — plus salary retention and dead cap hits — adds up to roughly $68.7 million ($68,679,342 to be exact, via CapFriendly). Barring any removals of players under contract for then, that leaves the Pens just south of $19 million of space in the best case scenario for the italicized two players plus handful of question marks to be resolved.
In that sense, the Pens are in a good but not great spot with their structure. They have room to comfortably give Guentzel an extension, presuming such a deal can be agreeable for both sides. Even after that most important piece of business, the team should be positioned with about $10 million to be able to fill whatever holes they might find for the future.
It might come down to how some veteran questions get answered to shape the roster for that season. Building off this weekend’s feature, what Bryan Rust and Lars Eller have in the tank (or...maybe don’t) for 2024-25 will show needs or potentially fill them.
Will Rust be able to play in a scoring line role? If so, great, he could stay in the larger role he’s been in. Rust still has a full no movement clause in 2024-25, and is likely a member of the team, but Dubas might have to stay nimble to add a scoring winger if he feels such a move is necessary.
Similarly regarding Eller, if he can actually be a viable third line player for each of the next two seasons, it would go a long way to lessening needs at center for next season.
Those types of answers will have to develop in the next 12 months and changes to course be set appropriately from there. Those two cases of Rust and Eller specifically are ones to keep in mind if you’re interested in tracking how the longer-term projection will shape up.
Possible changes to the outlook
As we saw last year with several players (McGinn, Kapanen, Petry, and Rutta), simply having a contract for a future season doesn’t guarantee a player will remain on the Pens’ roster by the time that season rolls around. Dubas has been aggressive in re-shaping things and bringing players on is going to require sending players out. Let’s take a peak at who could be options to not be around.
-Guentzel could become a free agent. He is in a perfect spot, it makes too much sense for player and team to want to extend the arrangement. We also know that anything can happen in a walk year. Malkin and Letang each went within a week of hitting free agency last summer, both ended up staying in the fold but either could have easily departed. Guentzel’s situation is a little different, but it’s the same as of now with an impending free agency.
-Marcus Pettersson is a player whose name is often in the trade rumor mill, and while he’s finally been accepted and pushed into a role commiserate with his salary, could Dubas see an opportunity to use his cap space in trade? It can’t be ruled out.
-Fringe players like Matt Nieto and Drew O’Connor could be a roster management decision away from the waiver wire at any point in the next 12 months. They are included now since they have deals, but it wouldn’t be shocking if one or both aren’t factors in Pittsburgh by the time 2024-25 rolls around.
-Noel Acciari’s long-ish term for his role and somewhat significant salary might save him from being classified with the above grouping. Barring something going completely wrong or unexpected, Acciari is likely to be in Pittsburgh for the second year of his three year contract.
-Rickard Rakell and Reilly Smith are positioned well to remain in their respective spots, but also carry decent cap hits. While at this point it’s a good bet that they will be in the plans, a look back to Petry’s case shows that Dubas isn’t afraid to move a veteran for an upgrade if there’s the opportunity. To get there, Smith and/or Rakell would have to leave the Pens wanting more like Petry did- which to be fair is not the current status, yet also not impossible to develop either.
-As a restricted free agent with arbitration rights next summer, P.O. Joseph might be in a position of less stability and likelihood of returning than it would appear. Whether it’s been Evan Rodrigues, Danton Heinen or Ryan Poehling, the Pens have allowed several NHL caliber RFA’s to become unrestricted recently. Depending on just how Joseph’s season goes (and possibly how Ty Smith also plays) that could answer what the Penguins’ next move is for that spot.
-Given contract term, clauses and/or position on the team, Crosby, Malkin, Karlsson, Letang, Rust, Graves, and Jarry figure to be the safest bets to be locked in with the Pens for the foreseeable future.
How to expect the unexpected
Without a crystal ball, this exercise will have some misses that pan out over the following 12 months. It will only a slump or needing cap space for another move to have a lower-end player out of the picture via a trade or waivers. Dubas has been willing even as a buyer to part with NHL assets (like dealing away Pierre Engvall and Rasmus Sandin from Toronto in-season last year) and is likely to change the mix as he sees fit and needs to do in order to navigate the cap, as seen with DeSmith.
In the big picture, the point that stands out is that where Dubas made his mark in summer 2023 in revamping the bottom-six forwards and shaking up the defense that should shift in the next year to focus more on a few spots in the top-nine forward group. The ticking clock or decision outcome happens with Guentzel only figures to add to the potential for some major sea changes at forward in the year ahead.