Expansion Draft Preview: Pittsburgh Penguins

This is one in a continuing series of articles outlining the options available to the Seattle Kraken during the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft. To learn more about the draft, please see our Expansion Draft Primer.

Check out articles like this one for every NHL team on our Expansion Draft Previews page.

Over the last 10 years, few teams have lost more man-games to injury than the Pittsburgh Penguins. That trend continued in the shortened 2020-21 season: just 2 (that’s, “two”) of the Penguins suited up for all 56 games; only 6 were in the lineup for more than 48 of them. Not surprisingly, Evgeni Malkin was among the wounded soldiers, taking the ice a mere 33 times.

In those 33 games he posted 28 points, a third of those on the power play. What could Pittsburgh’s season have been if he had been healthy? And how many years since he was first drafted have we said the exact same thing about the exact same guy? It was announced just days ago that Malkin had undergone successful knee surgery, so Pittsburgh can expect him to miss as much time next year as he did this season.

Injuries were somewhat of a factor in the East Division-winning Penguins’ first-round playoff loss to the New York Islanders, but not the biggest one. Allowing 4 goals against in 4 out of the 6 games in the series was likely the critical factor, as starting netminder Tristan Jarry’s numbers dropped from an already unimpressive .909 SV% and 2.75 GAA to .888 SV% / 3.18 GAA. Such is not the performance of a Stanley Cup Champion.

Much discussion about the direction of the team has already taken place in the aftermath of Pittsburgh’s playoff departure, specifically surrounding the disposition of its three marquee stars: Sidney Crosby, the aforementioned Malkin, and defenseman Kris Letang. The three of them have declared publicly that they are committed to finishing out their careers as members of the Penguins, essentially chaining the organ-eye-zation to their current salary cap conundrum and preventing anything resembling a rebuild.

So this off-season you can expect the Penguins to do what they’ve always done — splash about in the free agent and trade waters, hoping to find enough inexpensive role-players to complement their aging and expensive core. This could present some opportunities for the Seattle Kraken in the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft, depending on the direction Pittsburgh management decides to take.

Protected List

The first thing we’ll say about the Penguins’ list of protected players is that we expect there to be at least one change. Chatter has already popped up regarding Pittsburgh potentially trading away forward Jake Guentzel, but with 3 years left on a deal paying him $6 million AAV that’s going to be a hard deal to pull off. More likely is that they move forward Bryan Rust, who earns $3.5 million but has just one year remaining on his contract.

Guentzel and Rust were two of Pittsburgh’s three 20-goal scorers last season, so it’s reasonable to assume that there would be interest in both. If one of these two is moved prior to the expansion draft, that potentially opens up a protection slot for a forward further down on the depth chart. It’s also possible that one or both are left exposed in July, but we find that difficult to swallow given their value on the trade market. The expensive forward who we do expect to be left exposed is Jason Zucker, whose lackluster performance in limited duty last year fully justifies the Penguins attempting to walk away from his $5.5 million AAV salary.

So with that in mind, we assume that the Penguins will adopt the 7-3-1 protection scheme, and the following players will be protected:

Forwards: Evgeni Malkin (NMC), Sidney Crosby (NMC), Jake Guentzel, Bryan Rust, Kasperi Kapanen, Jared McCann, Jeff Carter

Defensemen: Kris Letang (NMC), Brian Dumoulin, Marcus Pettersson

Goaltender: Tristan Jarry

There may be debates in some circles about protecting center Jeff Carter. But with his rejuvenation as part of the Penguins’ forward corps — 11 points in 14 games to close out the regular season, then 5 points in 6 games in the playoffs — and recalling that LA still pays half his salary, Pittsburgh would be stupid to let him fly the coop. In particular, with Malkin’s recovery expected to eclipse the start of the 2021-22 season, the Penguins will need all the help they can get up the middle.

We’ll note here that there are several players who will be unrestricted free agents in the days following the expansion draft, and as such will likely be neither protected nor selected. That list includes forwards Colton Sceviour and Evan Rodrigues; defensemen Codi Ceci and Yannick Weber; and goaltender Maxime Lagace. Additionally, young defensemen John Marino and Pierre-Olivier Joseph, who both made substantial contributions to their club this year, are exempt from the draft.

Who’s Left?

The Kraken have options at every position, however none of them are headline-worthy. Remember that this list is only valid provided neither Guentzel nor Rust is traded away prior to the draft. The consensus opinion is that the Kraken select a forward; the analysis below shows that may not be the best option.

RW Brandon Tanev, $3.5 million AAV, signed through 2025. The 6′, 180 lb. “character guy” plays much bigger than his size, and is the backbone of the Pittsburgh penalty kill. Crushing checks in abundance while chipping in the odd point here and there (including an above-average number of shorthanded goals); the down-side here is a four-year commitment and a salary that’s more than double the going rate for a veteran bottom-six forward.

LW Zach Aston-Reese, $1 million AAV, RFA. This solidly-built defensive forward delivers large quantities of hits and reliably positive plus-minus numbers. What you see is what you get, however; you can discount the overly-optimistic armchair GM’s, there is very little up-side potential here.

C Teddy Blueger, $750,000 AAV, RFA. 49 goals, 66 assists, and a plus-58 in 175 games with AHL Wilkes-Barre earned this Latvian pivot a call-up to the big club in 2019. He has continued providing defensively-responsible, bottom-six minutes for the Penguins with an increasing number of points over the last 3 years. His performance at the face-off dot is below average, but steadily improving. If the Kraken do opt for a forward, Blueger represents the best value.

LW Mark Jankowski, $700,000 AAV, RFA. This big fella (6’4″, 212 lbs.) was drafted by Calgary in the first round, and had a couple of reasonable seasons with the Flames before signing with Pittsburgh. Calgary declined to qualify him after the 2019-20 season, allowing the Penguins to ink him to a one-year deal. With just 11 points over 45 games, it’s possible he meets the same fate again this off-season.

LD Michael Matheson, $4.875 million AAV, signed through 2026. Having come to Pittsburgh from the Florida Panthers, Matheson had his best plus-minus numbers of his career this season — but also his lowest point totals. The numbers for this young(ish), big(ish) blueliner don’t justify the staggering salary, especially for a further 5 years.

RD Chad Ruhwedel, $700,000 AAV, signed through 2022. With 187 games played over 8 seasons with Buffalo and Pittsburgh, Ruhwedel is a bargain-basement, stay-at-home, right-shot defenseman with respectable plus-minus numbers.

G Casey DeSmith, $1.25 million AAV, signed through 2022. Goaltenders, especially younger and less expensive ones, are in high demand. Penguins backup Casey DeSmith out-performed starter Tristan Jarry this season, and with 3 seasons of reliable experience under his belt, DeSmith represents an affordable upgrade in goal for about one-third of the league. He is the best choice for a select-and-trade option if the Kraken can find a buyer, and could even be a serviceable backup for the Kraken’s inaugural season.

Deal Me Out

With the lackluster options among the skaters, DeSmith looks like the best option for the Kraken, providing a side deal isn’t in the offing. The potential for a separate transaction depends in large part on how attached Pittsburgh is to DeSmith, and what they would be willing to part with instead. Offering up Kapanen or McCann might raise the interest level from the Seattle side; but I doubt a backup goaltender, even an above-average one, would create enough impetus for Pittsburgh to cough up a more substantial asset.

In the end I suspect that the Kraken will opt to go after DeSmith, then work the phones to find a buyer for his services — assuming they don’t have one already lined up by the time the final selections are made. Goaltenders are gold this off-season, and leveraging that situation will be firmly in the Kraken’s best interest. The expansion draft will be, in itself, a game of goalie musical chairs; DeSmith will be one of many just waiting for the music to stop.

Author: Tim Currell

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