The Pittsburgh Penguins inked forward Bryan Rust to a six-year deal worth slightly more than $30 million. That will keep him in Pittsburgh, where Rust has played the entirety of his eight-year NHL career.
Rust took a discount to stay in the city he has made home with his wife and young child, Hunter. Many believed Rust would earn anywhere between $6.5 to $8 million on the open market, but chose to stay.
Which other upcoming Penguins free agents could potentially follow Rust's lead?
The biggest names left on the docket for the Penguins are Kris Letang and Evgeni Malkin. Malkin has been on the record several times throughout last season stating, "money is not a big deal."
His comments align with the reports that he would be willing to take a pay cut from the $9.5 million he made since 2013. After being the highest-paid Penguin for nearly a decade, Malkin could be looking to step back and leave money on the table to bring other free agents back to Pittsburgh.
Letang is in a much different position. The only Penguins defenseman slated to hit free agency, Letang has played on a team-friendly contract since 2013. With this potentially being his last big deal, he may want to cash out on his recent success.
Historically, right-handed puck-moving defensemen are paid a premium across the NHL, but Letang has been underpaid in that position since signing his last deal.
His salary-cap hit ranked 19th in the NHL among defensemen last season, but he finished ranked seventh in points among defensemen (68) and fourth in average ice time among all skaters (25:47). Letang is in line for a raise but, similar to Rust, could take a cut from what he is in line to earn.
Rickard Rakell is an intriguing instance this off-season. Rakell counted as $2.4 million against the Penguins salary cap, but the Anaheim Ducks retained an extra $1.3 million as part of the deadline deal that brought him to Pittsburgh. Wherever Rakell signs, he will make more than $2.4 million but could be interested in following suit with Rust by taking less than expected while still getting a slight raise.
Rakell found instant chemistry with Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel late in the regular season. According to Natural Stat Trick, in under 100 minutes of ice-time they outscored opponents nine to one at even strength and had 61% of the expected goals when on the ice together.
Rakell may take a smaller salary if it means staying with Crosby and Guentzel. Look for him to potentially come in at around two years and anywhere from $3.5-$4M.
If Rakell's situation is interesting, Kasperi Kapanen's is a must-see. Kapanen is coming off of the most disappointing year of his career and may have to prove that he still can be a top-six winger in the NHL. With a restricted status, the Penguins are required to extend a qualifying offer of $850K to Kapanen to retain his rights before NHL free agency.
In a similar situation to Evan Rodrigues the last off-season, Kapanen may try to take a "show-me" deal to regain his standing in Pittsburgh and across the league. A one-year contract worth between $2 to $2.5 million could be a perfect compromise for the Penguins and the 25-year-old Finnish forward.
In the end, it is a salary cap league, and the Penguins have been up against it for the better part of the Crosby era. Not everyone will get a raise, and the Penguins will have to make tough decisions, but it would help the team significantly if more players follow in Bryan Rust's footsteps this summer.
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