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Flavell's Five Thoughts on Penguins Offseason

Five thoughts on the Pittsburgh Penguins offseason two weeks before free agency.

The offseason is officially upon the Penguins. You don’t need me to tell you why this is one of the biggest offseasons in the last two decades for the Pittsburgh Penguins. They have a multitude of decisions to make and none of them will be easy.

If the Penguins fail to re-sign any of their unrestricted free agents, their organizational holes would be very profound. They would need to replace a top defenseman, a second line center, and a top-six winger just for starters. They would be without a backup goalie and a few of last season’s bottom-six guys.

As things currently stand, the Penguins have approximately $23 million in available cap space. That number will dwindle quickly based on the Penguins’ current needs.

I won’t sit here and try to predict every move the Penguins will make and how it could fit into their salary cap situation. Instead, I’ll offer some thoughts on how I believe they may handle the offseason from a broad perspective.

Bringing back both Letang and Malkin seems unlikely.

If you’ve been following the Penguins’ offseason, you know that this scenario is likely out the window. As the days passed throughout the season, the realization that two of the organization's most important players may have played their final games in Penguins uniforms became more apparent.

As things stand, bringing back Letang should be the priority of the two. Letang will be 36 years old next season. But the guy is aging like a fine wine and is currently healthier than ever.

Sure, Letang makes some maddening decisions with and without the puck, but unlike 90% of NHL defensemen, his offensive skill makes up for those decisions. Letang has sharpened up defensively as he’s gotten older as well.

Malkin, on the other hand, is not the type of player that will age gracefully. He’ll have enough skill and a good enough shot to play until close to 40. But the Penguins likely don't want to give him a large AAV knowing that his age may catch up to him. He just had a second major knee surgery last season, and while he played well last season, Malkin will never be the player he once was.

I won’t advocate that the Penguins get rid of either of the guys. It’s a safe bet that dropping either from the team won’t come with much fanfare. Both guys can still play, but they’ll eat up a lot of the remaining cap space and prevent the Penguins from signing impact players to fill the other voids on the current roster.

A backup goaltender could play a key role.

Tristan Jarry’s next deal could hinge on who his backup is this season. Jarry will be a UFA after next season, and he could be in line for a bump on his $3.5 million salary. Who can blame him?

Jarry played way too often last season. Only a handful of goalies can handle that type of workload anymore. Not to say that Jarry won't grow into being that type of goalie, but there isn’t a need for a workhorse anymore. More teams are leaning heavier on their backup goaltenders than ever before.

Asking Jarry to start 50 to 55 games feels like a fair number. Asking him to go upwards of 60 with minimal spells in between isn’t something Pittsburgh should be aiming to do.

Unfortunately, head coach Mike Sullivan didn’t have much choice last season. Casey DeSmith was miserable to start the year but came on late and looked prime to cash in this offseason if he played his cards right. The injury in game one of the first round of the playoffs did him in.

According to Josh Yohe of The Athletic, Casey DeSmith and the Penguins won’t be agreeing on terms to return for next season.

They’re going to have to find a reliable backup to allow Jarry to rest every once in a while. Pulling from the Antti Niemi sector of backups isn't an option this offseason, so they need another goalie like DeSmith at an affordable rate.

The front office and coaching staff need to be on the same page.

Far too often, coaching tenures don’t last long because the philosophies of the coach and the front office don’t align. That doesn't seem to be a problem for the Penguins just yet.

But if you know the personalities and tendencies of Ron Hextall, Brian Burke, and Mike Sullivan, you’ll know that there isn’t full agreement on how the hockey team should look. Sure, they both compromise one way or the other, but these aren’t three guys who like to play the same style of hockey.

Sullivan has shown that he wants guys who play the game hard and commit to a defense even if their offensive talents far outweigh anything they could dream of defensively. But he wants players to buy in and play a two-way game. Meanwhile, Burke has always preferred a bigger-in-stature type of roster. Hextall kind of falls somewhere in between.

The Fenway Sports Group reportedly loves Sullivan and believes he's the guy to lead them back to the promised land after steering the ship there for his first two seasons. Sullivan's Boston ties certainly couldn't hurt the relationship.

For this to continue to work, Sullivan will have to accept that his team might get a bit bigger and more physical once we get through the free agency cycle. And the front office has to realize that Sullivan may not view those guys as everyday fits in his “Just Play” style lineup.

After four-straight first round exits some sort of change will be needed, and the roster will surely see it. Expect some compromise between the two styles to begin taking place this season.

© Philip G. Pavely | 2022 Jan 28

© Philip G. Pavely | 2022 Jan 28

Trading a defensemen (or two) must happen.

Last season, the Penguins’ top-six defenseman accounted for the highest paid defensive core in the league.

Letang’s number comes off the books but could also be going back on the books at an even higher AAV. John Marino, Marcus Pettersson, Brian Dumoulin, and Mike Matheson make north of $4 million per season. While they’re all solid players, they’re all too mediocre to be paying out that much as a unit.

To the Penguin's advantage, they have two depth pieces, Mark Friedman and Chad Ruhwedel, signed with a low AAV. P.O. Joseph seems ready to graduate to the NHL and could hop in and replace someone as early as Opening Night.

Joseph’s comparable on this team is Pettersson. They’re both tall, left-handed defensemen who struggle to move people out from in front of the net. Joseph might have more to offer offensively, but he won’t wow anyone and become the next Kris Letang.

Dumoulin struggled mightily last season, but it’s fair to assume he was never 100% healthy last season. Dumoulin was dealing with an ankle injury that saw him miss a big chunk of the campaign.

Marino had an impressive rookie season but turned in two fairly average seasons after that, and the Penguins aren’t paying him to be average.

Matheson broke out in a big way last season, but no one is sure if he’ll continue that upward trajectory or if he’s seen his best days.

There’s a necessary shakeup of the Penguin's defense coming. Which defenseman gets moved out will be a situation to watch. There are a few suitable options in free agency that could replace guys that the Penguins decide to ship out. But, as with any free agent you sign in July, it will cost an uncomfortable amount of money and term.

Any more playoff appearances beyond this are cake.

Let’s be real, Sidney Crosby deserves everything and more. Fenway Sports Group and the front office agree on that much. The organization plans to continue to give the Penguins every chance to win and make a playoff run. Will they eventually pay for it post-Sid?

Absolutely.

But it’s the right way to do business right now.

The Pens have made the playoffs for 16 consecutive seasons. They’ve seen many stars and role players contribute in the biggest ways across that stretch. It’s been a special run that saw the team win three Stanley Cups in the Crosby era.

Keeping the team competitive is something the Pens will certainly look to do. They may not be immediate cup contenders, but they’ll fight for and possibly even attain a playoff spot next April.

Whatever happens, appreciation for what they’ve done, as opposed to resentment for moves that may not be fan-friendly, should be a common feeling.

The Penguins have achieved too much in the past two decades for it to not be frustrating to watch if they limp into the playoffs or miss entirely.

But remember, all good stories must come to an end. And this one has gone on way longer than anyone could’ve imagined.

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