Takeaway: The Pens Use Free Agency to Further Makeover
General manager Jim Rutherford continued to give the Penguins roster a makeover during the opening day of NHL free agency on Tuesday.
The Penguins lost a number of players from last season’s roster. Forwards Jussi Jokinen (Florida), Tanner Glass (NY Rangers) and Joe Vitale (Arizona) and defensemen Brooks Orpik (Washington), Matt Niskanen (Washington) and Deryk Engelland (Calgary) all signed with other teams.
The Penguins, however, were not idle during the signing period. They inked four players to contracts with the signings of defensemen Christian Ehrhoff and Taylor Chorney, forward Blake Comeau and goaltender Thomas Greiss. Pittsburgh also re-signed forwards Marcel Goc and Nick Drazenovic.
Let’s take a look at how today’s events affect the Penguins now and in the future.
What was lost:
The Penguins' defensive corps will look vastly different than it has in years past. Mostly because of the loss of Brooks Orpik. The 33-year-old defenseman was the longest tenured Penguin and a vocal leader in the locker room. He’s been a physical presence on the blue line for the past 10-plus years.
Pittsburgh also lost steady D-man Matt Niskanen, who cashed in hard with $40.25 million over seven years from the Capitals, and pugilist Deryk Engelland, who also got a hefty pay raise at $2.9 million per year from the Flames.
In all, the Penguins lost nearly half of their defensive unit, but with Pittsburgh against the salary cap and those players signing lucrative contracts, it is hard to imagine a scenario where they could have been re-signed. A parting of ways was inevitable.
What was gained:
The Penguins got the steal of free agency with the acquisition of defenseman Christian Ehrhoff right at the noon bell. The 31-year-old defenseman (he turns 32 next week) signed a 10-year, $40-million contract with the Buffalo Sabres just three years ago. But on Monday the Sabres utilized a compliance buyout of Ehrhoff’s contract to avoid future cap recapture penalties, and he became an unrestricted free agent. That means Buffalo will be paying Ehrhoff $12 million over the next 14 years, according to Mike Brehm of USA Today.
The Sabres’ loss was the Penguins’ gain. With money being less of a concern, Ehrhoff told TSN that his primary desire in free agency was landing on a team that would compete for a Stanley Cup. Enter Pittsburgh. The Penguins signed Ehrhoff to a modest 1-year, $4-million contract.
Ehrhoff is certainly a tremendous fit with the up-tempo style that new head coach Mike Johnston wants the Penguins to play, with his skating ability and good breakout play. The veteran leader was an alternate captain in Buffalo.
The Penguins defense consists of Ehrhoff, Paul Martin, Kris Letang, Rob Scuderi and Robert Bortuzzo. The status of Olli Maatta and Derrick Pouliot for the start of the 2014-15 season is unknown after they each had shoulder surgery in May and were given projected recovery times of 4-6 months. There will also be competition expected from prospects Simon Despres, Scott Harrington, Brian Dumoulin and Chorney to crack the lineup.
What was lost:
Four days after trading James Neal, the Penguins lost Evgeni Malkin’s other winger when Jokinen signed with the Florida Panthers. There was no way the Penguins could match Florida’s four-year, $16-million deal. Pittsburgh also lost two members of their bottom-six group with the departures of Glass and Vitale.
What was gained:
The Penguins signed Blake Comeau for a nice price of $700,000. Comeau is a strong, physical player that will add some edge to the team’s bottom-six.
The Penguins’ top-six currently has a hole to be filled. Right now the team has Chris Kunitz, Sidney Crosby, Pascal Dupuis, Patric Hornqvist and Evgeni Malkin. Rutherford said that the team may still fill that void in free agency or wait until after the start of the season. He cited Beau Bennett and Nick Spaling as possible fits. There also could be some intrigue from first-round pick Kasperi Kapanen. He is close to making the leap to the NHL after playing against professional players in Finland. Although the Penguins believe he is still a year away, he could make things interesting in training camp.
The Penguins' bottom-six has undergone the most drastic changes. If the team re-signs restricted free agents Brandon Sutter and Spaling then they’ll have Sutter, Comeau, Spaling, Goc and Craig Adams under contract. The final opening will be filled either by Bennett, someone already in the system or via another free agent signing.
What was lost:
Though the Penguins played all of last year without the services of Tomas Vokoun, he is now officially an unrestricted free agent and no longer property of the Penguins.
What was gained:
The Penguins added Greiss, who put up decent numbers last year in Arizona with a 10-8-5 record, 2.29 goals-against average, .920 save percentage and two shutouts. He’s also a two-time Olympian.
Rutherford made it clear that goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury is the team’s No. 1 netminder. But the signing of Greiss adds depth at the position in the organization. Greiss and Jeff Zatkoff will begin battling in training camp for the right to be Fleury’s backup.
The Penguins still have a few positions on the roster to fill and $8.3 million to play with, according to Cap Geek. They’ll have to be frugal with that money.
There is an opening in the top-six, though the team doesn’t feel rushed to fill that spot. They may enter the season and see how things play out before addressing the void. And seeing as they will have until the trade deadline in March to do so, there's certainly plenty of time.
“I’m not sure we have to get a top-six forward at this time,” Rutherford said. “We don’t necessarily have to have our team all set for a playoff run in September. We will watch this over the first half of the season.
“If something comes along and we can figure it out cap-wise we’ll take a look at it. I’m not going to get anxious about it at this point.”
Although Rutherford did say that forward Nikolai Kulemin, whose name had been floated as a possibility to fill that role primarily because of his connection to Malkin (they share the same hometown and played together for years in Russia), is a long shot.
“There’s always a chance, but it would take someone getting very, very creative to figure out how that contract fits into our cap,” Rutherford said.
Instead, the team will likely hope to re-sign Sutter and Spaling and add a few players that fit the kind of team the Penguins are trying to assemble, while remaining within the confines of the salary cap.