Report: Penguins likely to lose UFA Niskanen

Is veteran stay-at-home defenceman Brooks Orpik ready to don a new sweater this off-season as a UFA, or will Pittsburgh find a way to pay for him to stay?

It’s becoming more and more apparent that pending unrestricted free agent defenceman Matt Niskanen won’t be wearing a Pittsburgh Penguins sweater next season.

The team’s new general manager Jim Rutherford said Monday that Niskanen — plus winger Jussi Jokinen — will likely leave once they become UFAs on July 1.

“I’ve talked with them,” Rutherford told Penguins beat writer Josh Yohe of the Tribune-Review. “I think both players would like to return. But they’re also coming off good years. It’s time for them to hit free agency and get their big contracts. With that being said, we’ll see what happens leading up to free agency.”

Niskanen is considered the top blueliner set to hit the free agent market. The Virginia, Minn., native is coming off a career year in which he registered 10 goals, 46 points, 51 penalty minutes and a team best plus-33 rating that ranked sixth in the NHL.

The 27-year-old Niskanen is coming off a two-year contract that had an annual salary cap hit of $2.3 million, but he’s expected to get a massive raise. Niskanen was acquired by the Penguins, along with James Neal, in 2011 from the Dallas Stars with defenceman Alex Goligoski going back the other way.

Jokinen had another productive season, picking up 21 goals and 36 assists in 81 games, plus a team high seven goals in 13 playoff games.

Rutherford, who was hired by the Penguins in June, will be a busy man this summer. In addition to Niskanen and Jokinen, Rutherford has to make a decision on Brooks Orpik, who becomes a UFA on July 1; in total, 11 players from the Penguins’ 2013-14 roster will become UFAs.

The team also needs to extend qualifying offers to restricted free agents Brandon Sutter and Simon Despres and find a new coach after Dan Bylsma was fired in June.

Rutherford added that he’s willing to part ways with the team’s first-round pick prior to Friday’s draft.

“We will trade that pick if it can help us get a player who can help us immediately,” Rutherford said.

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