After five years of disappointing playoff failures, change has begun to come to the Pittsburgh Penguins, the team has already parted ways with GM Ray Shero, known as much for his spectacular feats of trade as for his complete dismantling of the Penguins ability to build depth through the draft. Head Coach Dan Bylsma remains in limbo with the squad until a new GM is hired, and the GM will have the opportunity to retain or remove Bylsma and his staff. For an epic, and non-sensationalist read on the strangeness of firing Shero but not Bylsma, check out this piece at thePensblog.
Over the last several days (including an unexpected weekend respite) I have been outlining my 5-step action plan for fixing the Penguins while their biggest stars are still in the prime of their careers.
- The first step involves letting go of head coach Dan Bylsma, who really is a lame duck, even if he hasn’t been released officially.
- Step 2 focuses on James Neal. In cutting ties with the complacent old regime, Neal should be traded for whatever value he will fetch in light of his recent string of illegal, dangerous, and harmful play over the last two regular seasons.
- The third step considers the best course of action for the Penguins and Marc-Andre Fleury. Despite one of the better campaigns in his NHL career, Fleury may be a cap casualty for the cash-strapped Penguins.
Today we turn our focus on the Penguins pending free agent class, and apply some very simple logic: move on. The Penguins have become a team that is afraid of failure, they have been faulted, especially lately, for trying to rely on experience as opposed to youth and talent, and in many ways, the team has paid the price (*cough* Rob Scuderi over any of the team’s many young, eminently talented defensemen *cough*). Rather than bore you with elaborate examples, what follows is a grade sheet, evaluating each potential free agent and whether or not the Penguins should consider bringing them back (while also factoring in the likelihood that they could come back). The grading rubric is as follows:
A – absolutely must re-sign, team won’t be the same without them.
B – should re-sign, the team can move on without the player, but they probably shouldn’t.
C – meh, if they’ll take a huge hometown discount they could be worth a chance, but more than likely let them go.
D – no need, other options are available.
F – don’t even bother, mercenary who sucked up money that could have been used elsewhere. Restricted Free Agents
The Penguins have a total of 5 restricted free agents across both the NHL and AHL. I don’t personally want to deal with every AHL player, especially if they are unlikely to factor into the NHL roster anytime soon, as such we will only consider three names: Brandon Sutter, Simon Despres, and Jayson Megna (and exclude Phillip Samuelsson and Bobby Farnham).
Simon Despres: B+
The old regime’s folly gives the new regime an opportunity to add a 6’4”, 230 lbs. defenseman with a very good first pass and far above average skating ability to their NHL roster for probably a million dollars or less next season. Given everything that has transpired over Despres’ first three years of professional hockey, I don’t want to predict what he will yet accomplish in his career. I can say that unlike many recent high-round draft pick failures (including Angelo Esposito, Joe Morrow, Keven Veilleux, and Casey Pierro-Zabotel) who basically refused to accept coaching after failing to make it to the NHL as an everyday player early in their career, Despres has taken lessons to heart and has continued to evolve. Indeed, one complaint that some writers and fans had with Despres when he returned to the NHL in the middle of the 2013-14 season was that he seemed to have sacrificed some of his raw offensive ability to be a more responsible stay-at-home defenseman, which is exactly what Bylsma and his staff wanted.
Jayson Megna: A
People closer to the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins have characterized Menga as being very similar to Pascal Dupuis, and after seeing him for an extended cup of coffee in the NHL, I think they’re right. Undrafted like Dupuis, and not much of a prolific scorer in his minor league career, like Dupuis, Megna seems to have every other tool that has helped to make Dupuis such an integral part of the Penguins organization: great speed, great defensive accountability, and great coachability. Megna may even be ahead of Dupuis in terms of stickhandling. There’s no reason to believe that Megna won’t break next training camp with the NHL team, and he should be in position to slot in on Brandon Sutter’s right-wing. A move that will instantly make the team’s third line more athletic and more skilled than it was in previous years.
Brandon Sutter: A
Sutter hasn’t been great in his two seasons in Pittsburgh, but overwhelmingly that seems to be related to the quality of his linemates, and little to do with Sutter himself. I promise you, the Penguins won’t find another player of his caliber for any less money than he will command in negotiations. Whether you want to consider his quality of competition or not, Sutter is a great defensive center, in his two full regular and postseasons with the Penguins, Sutter’s on-ice SV% has never been lower than 93%, and indeed that’s a trend that he carried with him from Carolina, suggesting that his ability to keep the puck out of the net isn’t just chance. Further, this postseason reinforced the notion that Sutter’s ability to score is also largely influenced by his linemates. Moving forward, Sutter should have an opportunity to play with reasonably skilled, very speedy, and eminently coachable linemates like Megna and Brian Gibbons. It could be wishful thinking but this unit has all the right pieces to be pretty damn good indeed. Unrestricted Free Agents
The Penguins unrestricted free agent crop is not all that impressive with maybe three exceptions, as with before, almost all of the UFAs in Wilkes Barre will be omitted from this analysis.
Deryk Engelland: B-
Engelland is rated this high for two reasons: he’s a league minimum salary player, and there is this heavy feeling that the Penguins will name current interim GM Jason Botterill the team’s full-time GM (a very good move) and that ultimately he will vote to keep Dan Bylsma as coach for another year (a very bad move). If that’s the case, keeping Engelland around as a depth defenseman who knows Bylsma’s system makes sense, especially for what he would cost.
Brian Gibbons: A
By some technicality that I don’t want to bore you with, Brian Gibbons will actually be a UFA this offseason, although he never played a day in the NHL before this year and he’s only 25 years old. As such, the Penguins may need to pay some surprising money (like over $1 M per season) to keep Gibbons, but based on everything that co-owners Mario Lemeiux and Ron Burkle told Dejan Kovacevic of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Gibbons pretty much embodies the mindset for this team moving forward (except hopefully new management will find players that are taller). As alluded to above, Gibbons could make a great complementary piece with Sutter and Megna, and Gibbons’ exertion on the PK are enough to warrant bringing him back.
Tanner Glass: F
Adam Gretz wrote a great article debunking the myth that the Penguins failed this year because they had too much invested in their 5 most expensive contracts thus failing to leave enough cash to trickle down and find quality depth. Gretz continues that the flaw in the Penguins depth was offering stupidly expensive contracts to do-nothing players like Glass. Next.
Marcel Goc: C+
Goc was acquired at the trade deadline to give the Penguins a legitimate 4th line center, a penalty killer, and to light a fire under Brandon Sutter. Despite missing most of the remainder of the regular season, Goc did all of that. He also showed a passion for dominating board play which has been missing in Pittsburgh since Matt Cooke and Jordan Staal departed. Goc is limited though, given that he managed 3 assists in a total of 21 games with the Penguins. Nonetheless, as the guidelines above dictate, if the price is right, why not bring the German back to man the fourth line.
Jussi Jokinen: B
Jokinen had a very good regular season and an exceptional postseason getting the chance to play with Evgeni Malkin and James Neal. His 57 regular season points put him in the top-60 league wide, and his 7 playoff goals have him second only to the reborn Marian Gaborik. Even more damning to Jokinen’s signability (at least by the Penguins) is that he continued to score his playoff goals after Evgeni Malkin was moved to Sidney Crosby’s wing and without much aid from Neal. As such, Jokinen will be too expensive for the Penguins to re-sign. Of course, if he leaves, the Penguins won’t really be able to replace him. It is the catch-22 of misappropriating money in the salary cap era, the team will lose Jokinen but they’ve still got Rob Scuderi. The only alternative is to trade Neal for draft picks and reallocate some money towards Jokinen, and then slide Bennett into Neal’s vacated spot.
Matt Niskanen: B-
Similar to Jokinen, Niskanen had a great regular season, and aside from some hiccups in the second round, a very good playoffs as well. Given his age (27), his position (D), and his outspoken leadership qualities, Niskanen is far more gone than Jokinen. In part, the Penguins hopefully shouldn’t need Niskanen given their surplus of defensive prospects, but it will still be difficult to replace Niskanen’s prowess as the triggerman on the team’s power play. Look for Niskanen to cash in on a deal worth 2.5 to 3 times what he currently makes in free agency, which is good for him.
Brooks Orpik: C
Make no mistake, the Penguins will miss Brooks Orpik, an outspoken leader and the team’s most tenured veteran. Nonetheless, Orpik has been in steady decline for the last several seasons and the team’s new management will do well to trust in their young defensive players and let Orpik go to free agency where he’ll likely get a hefty raise by a team founded on less intensive defensive systems.
Taylor Pyatt: F
Not even touching this one.
Zach Sill: C
Sill spent 20 games in the NHL and is best known over that stretch for not scoring a single point. For what it’s worth, he only managed 9 in 57 games in the AHL this season. Nonetheless, he could be worth bringing back, if just to see what else he can bring. Pretty much a no risk opportunity.
Lee Stempniak: C+
I have already outlined the third line I would love to see the Penguins employ next season, but if the price were right, Stempniak could inject himself into that conversation. His greatest value could be as “Pascal Dupuis insurance,” in case Dupuis should not be ready for the start of next season or otherwise not able to be the player he formerly was.
Joe Vitale: C
It is a tired refrain, but if Joe Vitale had any kind of hockey sense, he would be an all-star. He has elite speed, decent size, and prolific faceoff winning ability. He also has a career shooting percentage of 2%, and more often than not, he never holds the puck long enough to even take a shot in the offensive zone. While the professional ranks are filled with worse options, there isn’t a strong compelling motivation for either Vitale or the Penguins to continue their relationship. Giving Vitale a fresh start and allowing the Penguins to kick the tires on Zach Sill and Adam Payerl seems in the best interest for everyone.
Tomas Vokoun: D
Make no mistake about it, Tomas Vokoun is going to retire, probably any day now.
So there you have it. The Penguins should begin their rebuilding by cutting ties with the players who couldn’t quite get them back to the Stanley Cup. Letting go of potentially pricey contracts like those expected for Jokinen, Niskanen, and Orpik will mark the true start of this team’s transformation, a hard decision that other preeminent teams like the Chicago Blackhawks and Boston Bruins have had to make for the past several seasons. In our conclusion, we will examine the state of the franchise and consider an ideological shift needed to get the Penguins back to the promised land.
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