2019 Offseason Preview: This Is Probably Going To Suck

With the conclusion of the 2019 Stanley Cup Finals, we can put all of our earnest attention to the summer and the offseason which, for the Pittsburgh Penguins, figures to be a tumultuous one.

This is not to ignore the fact that the Penguins offseason already began back in April, with the Penguins being swept out of the first round of the playoffs by the New York Islanders. That resounding defeat, combined with the Islanders being swept by the Carolina Hurricanes, who were then swept by the Boston Bruins, gave truth to the notion that the 2018-19 Penguins were not as good as we hoped they would be…not by a long shot. Indeed, since the 2017 playoffs ended, the Penguins have taken pretty much all the positivity of their two consecutive Cup victories and flushed them straight down the crapper, then flushed that crapper down another crapper. It’s been a highly undignified descent, and we can only hope that the next four months will not be worse.

The biggest news of the offseason thus far has been the Phil Kessel trade drama. In case the rock you’ve been hiding under since April didn’t have Internet access until now, the Kessel trade rumors have really been the Jack Johnson trade rumors, as general manager Jim Rutherford seems to be genuinely trying to get rid of the “defenseman” at just about any cost, which apparently includes the Penguins’ second-most-valuable winger. There’s been a lot of talk about Kessel souring on the team, or the team souring on Kessel, but there are few in the Penguins’ fanbase that don’t like Phil, and I have a sneaking suspicion it’s purely hype.

Disregarding that, let’s be real: the only reason the Penguins are considering getting rid of Kessel is because he’s the most valuable asset they have and that they’re willing to package with Johnson to get someone to take Johnson away. If Rutherford hadn’t signed Johnson in the first place, this never becomes a problem. Signing Johnson was an incredible mistake by Rutherford, and now he’s considering a second wrong (trading Kessel, one of the Penguins’ two point-per-game players from this past season) to see if he can make a right, as if that ever works.

If I’m Rutherford, I eat the humble pie that has been securely fastened to my desk since signing Johnson and buy him out. It’s as simple as that. Unless he can find a way to trade Johnson and not attach serious assets in the process (or somehow get something worse in return), there’s not a single good solution to be found for this error. He should not be allowed to make the Penguins worse by tying him to Kessel’s very useful person. The three-year extension the Penguins gave Rutherford last November is starting to almost look as bad as signing Johnson. He brought the Penguins to glory, and now he’s starting to drag them into despair. His punishment should be to be fired, but instead he’s probably going to do something stupid to try and fix something stupid.

There was the brief talk about Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang in the immediate aftermath of the playoff exit, but that’s mostly all gone by the wayside for now (less so about Malkin), due in large part to those guys being even more valuable than Kessel. Again, it’s pretty evident that a lot of the misgivings about the Penguins this past season has to do with Johnson. Losing Justin Schultz for a ton of the season “forced” head coach Mike Sullivan to deploy Johnson more than he probably wanted to, and the whole team suffered as a result. But if Johnson wasn’t there, they don’t have this problem, and maybe the Chad Ruhwedels (Malkin’s snipe notwithstanding) and Zach Trotmans further down the depth chart, being something more near replacement level than Johnson, would have at least given the Penguins more of a chance to compete. With Johnson, however, the albatross hanged weightily from the team’s neck and they couldn’t escape his effects on the team in all areas of the ice.

At this rate, I will not put it past Rutherford to make the bad decision and saddle some valuable asset with Johnson rather than take the longer-term punishment of the buyout. He’s not going to be around for much longer (his extension ends after the 2021-22 season) and although the buyout would be less painful as time wears on (as the salary cap increases) it’s more important for him to make the moves that he thinks are right, which have been largely incomprehensible from what we saw prior to the Cups and largely incongruous with what is actually showing to be successful in the League (including with those two Cups). We will have to wait and see how it goes, but there are many other matters to consider as the offseason rolls on.

Speaking of Crosby, the next topic on the NHL schedule is awards season. Sid is the only Penguin who is a finalist for an award, and as usual it is the Hart Memorial Trophy for the League’s most valuable player. He’s up against Tampa Bay’s Nikita Kucherov and Edmonton’s Connor McDavid as the other finalists. If you want a good argument for Crosby to win, you need look no further than last year’s winner, New Jersey’s Taylor Hall.

Since the lockout, eight for thirteen of the Hart trophy winners have also won the Art Ross trophy for being the points leaders for the season. Last season, Hall was 15 points behind McDavid for the scoring lead but while the Oilers were craptastic the Devils were almost literally carried into the playoffs by Hall and the 41 more points he scored than the Devils’ next highest scorer. McDavid actually wasn’t even a finalist last year, nor were the next three highest-scorers in the League. This year, McDavid’s Oilers were again trash, while the Penguins and Lightning were both playoff teams. So McDavid is probably not going to win.

Kucherov, however, will be a tougher player for Crosby to beat. Kucherov’s 128 points is the most for the League leader since Mario Lemieux had 161 during the 1995-96 season, and while the Lightning as a whole were a force to be reckoned with this season, he still had 30 more points than his next teammate. Crosby however surpassed the Penguin with the next-most points, Phil Kessel (that guy again?!), by just 18 points. If you were hoping that Sid’s work on defense would provide him with enough of a boost over Kucherov, maybe think again: according to hockey-reference.com, Crosby’s 2.4 defensive point shares was just 0.1 greater than Kucherov’s. It would take something extraordinary in the minds of the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association for Crosby to win out over Kucherov, and I have a hard time seeing it.

The week after the awards are handed out is the annual Entry Draft. At the time of this writing, the Penguins still(!) have their first round pick, and if they keep it, it’ll be their first first round pick in five years when they took Kasperi Kapanen. Trading Kapanen in 2015 worked out in the near-term for Pittsburgh as they benefitted from the primary asset in return (GASP, Kessel AGAIN) gelling with Nick Bonino and Carl Hagelin on the third line, which really helped spread out the offense in the 2016 Cup run in particular but also in 2017. Overall, Pittsburgh can certainly say they won that trade, although Kapanen has become a pretty good forward for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

I’m not going to try and suss out who the Penguins could take with the 21st pick in the draft, mostly because by the time the draft gets to that point you have all the variables of other teams. The other part is the notion that Rutherford will trade that pick in an attempt to make the team better now and for the next few years, which I guess you could never know for sure when he’s doing dumb shit like signing Jack Johnson or trading (a first round pick AND Oskar Sundqvist!) for Ryan Reaves. There’s a chart on the Internet (you go find it) that indicates that the 21st pick on average has one-third the value of the first overall pick and roughly half the value of the seventh overall pick. It’s not to say that a team can’t strike it rich with a 21st overall pick (including such luminaries as Kevin Lowe, Saku Koivu, Bryan Smolinski, Syl Apps, Tuukka Rask, and Dennis Maruk), but those gold nuggets have to be sifted from the pan.

This year’s draft overall is considered pretty strong. The New Jersey Devils will select the first overall pick for the second time in three years, and they will likely select either Jack Hughes or maybe Kaapo Kakko with that pick. I want to get back to them a bit later on, but with that former first round pick, Nico Hischier, and 2017 MVP Taylor Hall, the Devils are likely on their way up, which means trouble for teams like the Penguins and Capitals as they start to be challenged in maintaining success in the salary cap era. You also have the New York Rangers drafting second overall, the Flyers two years removed from picking second, the Hurricanes making the Conference Finals this year, and the future is starting to look rosier for the teams in the bottom half of the Metropolitan Division.

And then comes free agency on July 1. The Penguins have just six expiring NHL contracts, half of which are unrestricted free agents (UFAs) who are seemingly easy to replace with AHLers. With just ~$3M of cap space and Murray’s, Simon’s, and McCann’s arbitration-eligible restricted FA contracts expiring next season, there’s been a lot of talk of the Penguins trying to dump salary. It may not be necessary (their cap space is an estimated $14.5M next offseason), but that may still be fueling the discussion of trading Johnson, Kessel, or Maatta. They’re very unlikely to be in on any of the big names ending up on the market, which I’ll get back to in a second.

There isn’t a lot of turnover among the NHL roster but there’s a lot of potential for movement in the AHL roster, especially amongst the blueliners (AE: arbitration-eligible):

  • NHL UFAs: F Matt Cullen, F Garrett Wilson, D Zach Trotman
  • NHL RFAs: F Teddy Blueger (AE), F Zach Aston-Reese (AE), D Marcus Pettersson
  • AHL UFAs: F Jimmy Hayes, F Ben Sexton, D Kevin Czuczman, D Chris Wideman, D Ethan Prow, D Chris Summers, G John Muse
  • AHL RFAs: F Joseph Blandisi (AE), F Adam Johnson (AE), D Macoy Erkamps (AE), D Juuso Riikola (AE), D Blake Siebenaler, D Jeff Taylor (AE)

Two years ago I said I believed Cullen would retire, and not only did he not retire but he ended up returning to the Penguins this past season. I don’t think there’s a need for a second encore, especially with the emergence of Teddy Blueger, but Cullen hasn’t flat-out said (yet, as of this writing) that he’s retiring this time around either. Wilson had his moments but there’s no reason to suggest he’ll be retained. Trotman will probably go too. The three RFAs should be back. This should be pretty straightforward because Rutherford has to be fairly conservative given the cap restraint.

As to free agency around the League: the biggest losers this year include the Columbus Blue Jackets and the San Jose Sharks. Columbus swung for the fences at the trade deadline in acquiring Matt Duchene from the Ottawa Senators, but they fell short despite sweeping the President’s Trophy-winning Tampa Bay Lightning; that might as well have been their Stanley Cup right there. Now Duchene, Artemi Panarin, and Sergei Bobrovsky may all walk, though the Blue Jackets and their fifth-most salary space could be in play for at least one of them. San Jose came awful close to squeaking into the Stanley Cup Finals, but now they have Erik Karlsson, Joe Pavelski, Joe Thornton, Gustav Nyquist all on expired contracts. They’ll have about $25M in cap space, eleventh-most, so they may be able to retool.

The Penguins need to get their business straight. If they want to be earnestly competitive, Rutherford has to stop making seemingly regressive moves and return to his previously shrewd ways. As I mentioned, there are changes coming in the power structure of the Metro Division, with the Penguins and Capitals going out in the first round and the Islanders, Blue Jackets, and Hurricanes making playoff pushes of varying lengths. The Devils, Rangers, and Flyers all stand to improve this offseason, by both the draft and having the cap space to rebuild their rosters.

Pittsburgh is in a dire position of becoming mediocre, if they’re not there already, and being in “win now” mode means the only moves the team should be making are those to make the roster better. Any uncertainty in that regard from Rutherford needs to be taken as a sign that he doesn’t know what he’s doing and shouldn’t be in his position, but the executives nevertheless overlooked his failure to maintain a Cup competitive roster and instead rewarded him for the two Cups he did win. If anyone can look at the last two offseasons and tell me with a straight face that Rutherford is making the team better by adding terrible, useless players and letting the useful ones go, you’re suffering the same condition as Rutherford.

This offseason stands to be an important one for the future of the Penguins, because we are now firmly in the limelight of the careers of Crosby, Malkin, Letang and Kessel, as well as the beginning of Jake Guentzel’s first big contract and the end of Murray’s last RFA extension. If there’s any hope for another Cup, it has to come in the next few years, and with the bloated contracts of Johnson, Hornqvist, Maatta, and Gudbranson, the team is hamstrung in making the moves it needs to stay ahead of the curve in the NHL. There are a lot of problems and few solutions, and all we can do is hope that the team can get on the same page and push themselves for a third Cup in five years.

On behalf of myself, 66thDopefish, Finn and Rad I want to take a moment and say THANK YOU to all of our other contributors this season.

UNG, Jovi, Gutsgonebad, Andy, PPYM, Doge, and even “Dikless” Jason Irving were all very instruMENTAL in keeping the presses running here at P.H this past season. Without yinz, WE would have been very hard…pressed to have a complete post & recap year on the blawg. Thank you all for your efforts and contributions.

I’d also like to thank ERREYONE who lands here to comment and make this silly hawkey blawg a special and enjoyable place to waste our valuable time. I consider you ALL my friends and hope to see you all over the Summer and at the start of the new 2019-2020 season. THANK YOU ALL!