The Pittsburgh Penguins have plenty of decisions to make when it comes to free agents on their own roster.
Here is how the the team should prioritize each of the upcoming free agents:
Top Priority: Evgeni Malkin
Is there a decline in play? It seems like it, but there is no doubt that Evgeni Malkin is a future Hall of Famer and has earned the right to finish his career in Pittsburgh.
Even coming off of knee surgery, Malkin was able to string together 42 points (20-22) in 41 games.
Despite the critics and injuries, Malkin still produces at a high enough level and is willing to take a pay cut of some sort.
$5 million is insultingly low, but surely a deal can be met if the Penguins are serious about keeping an all-time great around.
There’s also a big milestone that Malkin is close to breaking that would have much more meaning if he was able to do it with the Penguins.
Malkin is 19 games shy of hitting the 1,000 game mark; an achievement only ever hit in Pittsburgh by his teammate, Sidney Crosby.
The Penguins snagged Rickard Rakell at the trade deadline in hopes he would become a productive piece in a long playoff run.
Unfortunately, Rakell was taken out early in Game 1 after taking a high hit, and was only able to return for Game 7.
In the 19 regular season games Rakell did play with the Penguins, he stood out as a steady producer putting up 13 points (4-9).
Put Rakell back on a line with Crosby for a full 82 games and see what kind of magic can come in return.
During locker clean out day, Rakell said that playing in Pittsburgh was a great experience and thinks it’s a place he can take his game to the next level.
13 points through 19 games is already the beginning of Rakell hitting his next level. He needs to be back in the Steel City and be a key contributor on the top line.
There was a handful of games down the stretch of the regular season that head coach Mike Sullivan was giving Danton Heinen under seven minutes of ice per game.
Heinen found himself in Sullivan’s dog house, but quickly found his way out by scoring four goals and an assist in the last 10 games of the season.
He closed out the season much in the same way he started it, with a solid amount of production on the score sheet despite playing bottom-six minutes.
In 76 games played, Heinen scored a career-high 18 goals and added 15 assists for 33 points.
It’s that kind of depth production that set the Penguins apart in years past; Heinen is a main piece who can return the Pens’ bottom-six to its former glory.
Middle Ground: Evan Rodrigues
It was the tale of two halves for Evan Rodrigues; From all but automatic in the first 41, to next to no production in the second 41.
Rodrigues found his way to 15 goals and 15 assists for a clean 30 points in the first half of the season.
Thanks to such a high paced start, it was a real let down when the last 41 games only saw him score 13 points (4-9).
A new deal with the Penguins could go either way for Rodrigues. While there’s still a chance he can reclaim his first half form, the odds are against him in a “what have you done for me recently” league.
We can all be honest and say Louis Domingue was not good against the New York Rangers, but who knows what happens without him.
Playing a vast majority of the season in the AHL probably handcuffed Domingue’s ability in the postseason, but he’s not here to be a postseason goalie.
Finding a cheap and decent enough backup goalie isn’t the easiest thing to do, but a full season in the NHL as Tristan Jarry’s backup may be a benefit for the Penguins.
Can’t Afford: Bryan Rust
If there’s one thing that is certain, Bryan Rust knows what he is worth. He said as much during locker clean out day.
Over the past three seasons, Rust has become money in the bank for around 25 goals every year, and two of those years were shortened due to the pandemic.
In 2021-22, Rust missed 22 games for injuries, but still posted 24 goals; give him a full season and he is pushing past 30 with no effort.
What are 30-goal scorer’s worth in the NHL these days? More than the Penguins can afford, especially if they want to make other certain changes.
Rust is coming off of a contract worth $3.5 million and has stated that he is looking to benefit him and his family.
Already twice a Stanley Cup Champion, Rust doesn’t have much more to accomplish in the NHL other than cashing in on the biggest contract possible.
As a fan, it’ll be a tough pill to swallow, but this may be the end of the road for Kris Letang.
Much like Rust, Letang is well aware of his worth and has expectations for his new contract.
If Letang and his camp hold steady for a four or five-year deal starting at $7 million, then the Penguins will have to pass.
Of course, Letang says ideally he stays with the Penguins to finish his career, but the NHL is a business and the asking price might just be too high for Pittsburgh.
The Montreal Canadiens are likely where Letang ends up; it’s his hometown, they have the cap space and are in need of a new top defenseman.
Let Walk: Kasperi Kapanen
To keep things plain and simple, Kasperi Kapanen failed to reach any of the expectations people had for him this year.
Kapanen showed flashes of what could be possible with a hat-trick in November, but that was it.
He is a restricted free agent this summer, but there is next to no reason why Kapanen should be back with the Penguins for 2022-23.
Backup goalies don’t usually have long tenures with a single team in the NHL, and this might just be the end of Casey DeSmith’s in Pittsburgh.
As a second string goalie, you need to be available in some of the most important situations; for the second year in a row, DeSmith was injured for the playoffs.
It’s not that DeSmith was outplayed by Domingue in any capacity, but backups just don’t stick around for as long as DeSmith has.
Brian Boyle: Retirement
Nathan Beaulieu: Was he ever really "on the team?"
Juuso Riikola: European league
The summer of 2022 is going to be full of changes for the Penguins, both on the ice and in the front office. Some departures will be difficult, but nothing can last forever and the NHL can be a harsh business.
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