It’s hard to imagine that after finishing their season without a Stanley Cup for the first time in two years the Pittsburgh Penguins will overreact in the off-season and make vast changes to its roster.
But at his year-end availability, general manager Jim Rutherford kept the door open for some kind of change, big or small.
“I think it’s obvious that I’m going to keep an open mind to making some changes, and I will make some changes,” he told the gathered media. “I can’t give you a definite answer on who that’s going to be right now and exactly the positions, but we’re a good team, and we will be a good team going forward. We’ll have a chance to win again. We have the nucleus to do that.”
When Rutherford was asked about the kinds of changes he wanted to make last off-season, it always came back to a third-line centre. He didn’t get that done in the summer and made an early-season move to bring in Riley Sheahan from Detroit.
Rutherford went a step further around the trade deadline and made the impact addition of Derick Brassard to shore up his third-line spot. Brassard recorded just four points in the playoffs and saw his minutes diminish as the Capitals series went on. This, Rutherford explained, can be attributed to an injury he sustained late in the season, but with a healthy Brassard returning and three strong centres in 2018-19, the Penguins are strong and deep at the most important position, making them among the favourites to win it all again next season.
So what kind of changes could Rutherford bring to this team?
As he mentioned, it’s too early to tell. The trade market will surely develop around draft time and once a few big names come off the UFA board, the losers may be looking to add or adjust via trade instead. There are a few things we’d bet won’t happen, like trading Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin, but Rutherford did suggest his Penguins have players other GMs will be attracted to, and who are potentially expendable in order to upgrade other areas of need.
“We also have the pieces in place that are players that other teams are going to want, that we’re going to be able to make those changes,” Rutherford said. “Sometimes you don’t always have those players for cap reasons or for different reasons. I think it’s fair to say this will be a different-looking team by the time we open next season. It doesn’t mean there’s going to be drastic changes or a lot of changes, but there will be changes in areas that will become necessary.”
Every player who dressed for the Penguins in Game 6 versus Washington is either under contract for next season, or is an RFA (Sheahan, Dominik Simon, Bryan Rust, Tom Kuhnhackl, Jamie Oleksiak). At first glance, you might imagine the Penguins would be open to trading 21-year-old Daniel Sprong, a second-rounder from 2015 who was a point-per-game player in the AHL this season.
But while Sprong was regularly mentioned in rumours around the deadline, and he would certainly be a target for rival GMs, Rutherford said he would be a regular on next year’s Pens.
By adding in Sprong to the right side, the Penguins would face a situation where they have too many top-nine wingers and a need to upgrade the blue line. With that in mind, here are a few players Pittsburgh could consider moving this summer, if the right deal comes along.
In 2016-17, Sheary was the Penguins’ breakout youngster, posting 23 goals and 53 points in 61 games. That production led to a three-year contract extension with a $3-million AAV. But this year, Sheary’s role dropped off and his minutes declined by an average of two per game. He wasn’t put on the Crosby line as often, more regularly used as a third-liner and his offensive numbers fell to 18 goals and 30 points in 79 games. In the playoffs, he didn’t record a goal and earned just two assists in 12 games.
Still just 25 years old and not a slow or overly expensive player, there could be a team willing to give up a middle-pair defenceman in the hopes of reclaiming some of Sheary’s success from a year ago.
Earning $4 million against the cap for one more season before becoming a UFA, Hagelin, who will be 30 at the start of next season, is a quick player who averaged the second-most minutes on Pittsburgh’s 17th-ranked penalty kill. He won’t blow you away with offence (he got 31 points this season), but as speed becomes ever more important to have everywhere in the lineup, perhaps the Penguins could find a trade partner who finds value in having Hagelin in their bottom six and as a PK specialist.
The first right winger on this list, it might be less likely Rutherford ships out Kessel from a lineup that could still win another Stanley Cup next season. But given Kessel is coming off a 92-point season that has set his value very high and that he’s making $6.8 million against the cap through his age-34 season, Rutherford could explore this option. We know Kessel won’t play on Crosby’s line because it’s never quite been a fit, and with Simon and Patric Hornqvist also on the right side there isn’t an obvious spot for Sprong, who should be in the top nine at least. Hornqvist just signed an extension, so he’s unlikely to move.
That brings us to…
If Sprong has all but been guaranteed a roster spot, if Kessel doesn’t move and Hornqvist also stays, the 23-year-old Simon would either move to the fourth line, or possibly to the left side if either Hagelin or Sheary are dealt. Simon’s trade value wouldn’t be as high as some other players on this list — he has 14 points in just 38 career NHL games — and he was moving all over Pittsburgh’s lineup through the season and playoffs. He’s the cheapest, most controllable asset here, which could be too valuable for the Penguins to move on from. But if another team is willing to bet on Simon, you can see a way Pittsburgh could go on without him.