Prospect Ramblings: What might Cup champions look like in October?

by Mark Allan on June 17, 2017

Talented yet underachieving blueliner Derrick Pouliot could be one of the new faces as Pittsburgh shoots for a third straight Stanley Cup? Will he seize the opportunity?

 

When Pittsburgh entered the NHL in 1967, I laughed. Calling yourselves Penguins doesn’t exactly conjure a virile image to stiffen the resolve of your fans and intimidate opponents.

The image of waddling Penguins is as comical as Anaheim naming its team the Ducks, mighty or otherwise. So, I laughed when Pittsburgh joined the NHL.

Well, who’s laughing now?

After Stanley Cup championships in 1991, 1992, 2009, 2016 and 2017, the Steeltowners are the NHL’s current model franchise, the Chicago Blackhawks notwithstanding. Salary-cap dynasty talk, about as rare as consistent goalie-interference calls, is in the air.

For their second straight Cup (the first NHL team to do it since the 1997-98 Detroit Red Wings and the first under a salary cap), the Pens overcame a daunting run of injuries, some to key players such as blueline stud Kris Letang, as Pittsburgh’s back end was hit especially hard.

Jim Rutherford, who has made many savvy decisions since coming from Carolina, expertly patched the blueline and sure made the right call by keeping Matt Murray and Marc-Andre Fleury all season. Would Pittsburgh have repeated without those two as they replaced each other when injuries struck? I don’t think so.

I salute the back-to-back champs, whom I have come to appreciate while covering their prospects for Dobber the past two seasons.

Coaches Mike Sullivan, Rick Tocchet and Jacques Martin have adroitly integrated a slew of homegrown prospects, notably Murray, Jake Guentzel, Conor Sheary and Brian Dumoulin.

Dobber has graduated Murray, Sheary, Dumoulin, Bryan Rust and Scott Wilson from prospects to full-time NHLers. Guentzel remains a prospect only because of his relatively small regular-season sample size (40 games).

This week, I’m examining what opportunities might arise for Pittsburgh’s remaining prospects as defined by Dobber Prospects to try to help the team waddle toward a threepeat.

Any forecast is clouded by the impending arrival of the Vegas Golden Knights, who can (from Sunday through Tuesday) sign any unprotected UFAs who otherwise would have to wait until July 1 to sign with a new team.  

And there’s the expansion draft, specifically whom Pittsburgh might leave unprotected (we should know by Sunday) and which Penguin Vegas will select (all new Knights will be revealed Wednesday).

However, since two-time Stanley Cup champion Marc-Andre Fleury was not traded by today’s deadline, it seems safe to assume that Knights’ GM George McPhee will nab him as the initial face of the new desert franchise. That’s because the netminder known as Flower is an awesome team player who waived the no-movement clause of his contract, allowing the Penguins to expose him in the expansion draft, protect the rest of their roster and move on with Murray as their starter.

Let’s review which Penguins are certain or at least likely to stay, and who is probably moving on, bearing in mind that while Pittsburgh GM Jim Rutherford would save $5.75 million in cap space if Fleury departs, he has been nudging the cap ceiling – starting with a core that includes Evgeni Malkin ($9.5M), Sidney Crosby ($8.7M), Phil Kessel ($6.8M) and Kris Letang ($7.25M).

Assuming Fleury is a goner, that would leave Rutherford with 15 roster contracts, a total cap of $54,300,833 and cap space of $18,699,167 (assuming the ceiling remains at $71 million).

Whew, better to let your babies grow up to be cowboys than GMs.

More than $18.5 million in cap space sounds like a lot – until you consider the free agents, particularly on the blueline, who were part of Lord Stanley’s champion. Here’s a list of the most-prominent, although hardly the only free agents Rutherford must decide whether to keep or cut loose.

 

UFA third-line center Nick Bonino must decide if he wants to take GM Jim Rutherford's best contract offer or shop himself on the open market:

 

UFAs: C Nick Bonino, LW Chris Kunitz, D Trevor Daley, D Ron Hainsey, D Chad Ruhwedel, D Mark Streit, D Cameron Gaunce. RFAs: LW/RW Conor Sheary, D Brian Dumoulin, D Justin Schultz, D Derrick Pouliot, C Oskar Sundqvist, RW Josh Archibald, C/RW Carter Rowney.

Roster players under contract most likely to stay (in descending order, with years left on contracts): C Crosby (7), C Malkin (5), C/RW/LW Jake Guentzel (2), RW Kessel (5), D Letang (5), RW Patric Hornqvist (1), D Olli Maatta (5), D Ian Cole (1), RW/LW Bryan Rust (1), LW/C Scott Wilson (1), LW Carl Hagelin (2).

Guentzel is ranked that high due to scoring potential/youth/short-term affordability, while Kessel (compatibility), Letang (injuries) and Hagelin ($4M cap hit/limited production) are lower than you might expect. Still, it’s likely that Rutherford brings them all back for another Cup run.

On defense, rock-steady Dumoulin is a lock to be back, Daley is probable and Schultz is possible. Even though he’s an RFA and subject to some team control, the 26-year-old Schultz will want a big raise after a 51-point season that Rutherford might not be able to afford.

The biggest FA turmoil and opportunity for prospects is on the blueline, although there’s an obvious vacancy for a second netminder. The Pens would love former first-round pick Pouliot to figure the game out and take his place on the back end. Since he’s an underachiever and an RFA, he’s affordable and will get a short-term bridge deal, one more chance to prove he can make it in the NHL.

Hainsey and Streit, acquired by Rutherford to shore up a ravaged blueline, are 36 and 39 respectively and are unlikely to return, although Hainsey provided surprising stability. Ruhwedel, 27, will likely be signed as an AHL starter and NHL insurance.

Sheary is a priority signing for the GM and Hornqvist, who scored the Cup-clinching goal, will almost certainly be back for one more season at $4.25M. If Hagelin is retained, that leaves Bonino, Kunitz and fourth-line center Matt Cullen as the forwards most likely to depart.

Cullen, 40, will likely retire with his Cup rings while Kunitz, 37, will easily find employment with a different team attracted by his two-way play, superb teamwork and four Stanley Cup rings (three with Pittsburgh and one with Anaheim). Bonino, 29, has been a good third-line center for the Pens, but third-line centers can be replaced.

Oskar Sundqvist is likely ready for the fourth-line job, although he’s a stretch to center Pittsburgh’s third line at the moment. Carter Rowney, a 27-year-old AHL veteran who got some playoff experience with Pittsburgh, could also be a candidate for the fourth line.

 

Tristan Jarry might replace Marc-Andre Fleury as Pittsburgh's second netminder.

 

If Rutherford decides two-year pro Tristan Jarry is not ready to be an NHL backup goalie, or needs more AHL seasoning, expect the GM to sign an NHL veteran to a one- or two-year deal. Otherwise, Jarry could be the second netminder, with Swede Filip Gustavsson coming down the road.

Long story short: Rutherford has many personnel decisions to make, and has a price tag beside the name of each of his free agents. If they agree to that number (or less), they’ll be back. If not, the two-time Stanley champion could look even more different as it hunts its third consecutive title.

 

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I was saddened to hear Darryl Dobbs, the founder of this website, is gravely ill. Good luck with your treatment, Dobber. More information is available here.

 

Mark Allan