The Pittsburgh Penguins are winning the weirdest offseason I can remember, and I’m not sure the five-time Stanley Cup champions are finished.
The free-agent market in 2023 isn’t what it once was. With the NHL stuck at a relatively stagnant salary cap of $83.5 million, dollars and term are down on new contracts. Trades have been difficult to finalize. But I think Kyle Dubas, the Penguins newly appointed president of hockey operations, has done an excellent job of upgrading a roster that was sorely in need of an overhaul.
Did Dubas come in swinging an ax? No. And he didn’t need to. Pittsburgh already had star power in Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang: all Penguins lifers. Yes, those players are aging. I get it. But they’re all still performing close to their historic levels.
What Pittsburgh desperately needed – and received – was quality depth at all positions. Players that head coach Mike Sullivan could count on to be responsible in all three zones and contribute offensively. And Dubas was quick to address his team’s weaknesses when NHL free agency opened July 1.
Now, it’s important to note that only a few NHL franchises went full throttle this offseason. Teams like the Florida Panthers and Detroit Red Wings have been very active. The only problem with those teams is that I’m not thrilled across the board with their acquisitions.
Detroit got better, especially after landing sniper Alex DeBrincat on Sunday. And the Red Wings did add a few nice pieces through free agency. I really like forwards Daniel Sprong and J.T. Compher. But I’m not sure how Shayne Gostisbehere and Justin Holl will make the team better defensively. Which was a major sore spot during the 2022-23 campaign.
Florida? Meh. The Panthers needed defenders and they got them. But it’s a similar theme as the Red Wings for me. Can Nikko Mikkola and Oliver Ekman-Larsson effectively patrol the front of Florida’s net? I’m not sure. But Dmitry Kulikov should help. And I do like the four-year deal given to versatile forward Evan Rodrigues.
I look around the NHL and see so many teams that added pieces here and there. Nothing major. Not many blockbuster trades to speak of. So when judging the 2023 offseason, I think it’s really a matter of parsing out which team did the best job of addressing their own needs. And I keep circling back to the Penguins.
Trading for 2023 Stanley Cup Champion Reilly Smith was good business for the Pens. He’s a reliable 50-point producer, an outstanding penalty killer, and a proven leader. At 32 years old, and with two years left on his contract at a reasonable $5 million, Smith makes more sense in the Penguins lineup than Jason Zucker, who he essentially replaced.
But for me, it’s really what the Penguins have accomplished so far in free agency that sets the team apart. Bringing in centers Lars Eller and Noel Acciari instantly improved Pittsburgh’s bottom six forwards. And it will allow Sullivan to move aging forward Jeff Carter to the wing. Or even out of the lineup.
Acciari arrives in Pittsburgh after finishing the 2022-23 season with the Dubas-led Toronto Maple Leafs. So obviously there’s familiarity there. And I like that Acciari is versatile. He can play wing or center. And he’s an adept penalty killer, something the Penguins missed after Teddy Blueger was dealt to the Vegas Golden Knights on March 2.
With Eller, it’s much the same as Acciari. Only with more scoring touch. Despite playing mostly bottom-six minutes in recent years, Eller has continually been a 25-30 point player. And he has a Stanley Cup to show for it with the 2018 Washington Capitals. Given he’s 34, the signing is a bit of a gamble, especially with the two-year term. But there’s a reason why Eller’s name is always floating around in trade talks. Teams like him.
But here’s where things get interesting. I didn’t expect Dubas to run it back with Tristan Jarry and Casey DeSmith as the team’s goaltending tandem. When healthy, the duo has been formidable. But that’s the problem. They haven’t been able to stay in the lineup. And DeSmith’s play has regressed in the past couple seasons.
Jarry was an unrestricted free agent. Yet he chose to re-sign with the Penguins for five years at a cap hit of $5.375 million per year. I was surprised at the term, not the dollars. In my eyes, Jarry was the best UFA available, and he got No. 1 goalie money.
Keep in mind that Jarry has a strong relationship with Pens goalie coach Andy Chiodo. He knows what he’s signing on for. And if I’m Dubas, I’d rather roll the dice on Jarry staying healthy than bring in someone new to the organization that doesn’t have the same track record of high performance.
I can see why Dubas wanted to keep Jarry. But I do think he’s looking for competition to inspire better play behind the Penguin’s number one goaltender. While I think it’s a little odd that Dubas chose to sign former Red Wings goaltenders Alex Nedeljkovic and Magnus Hellberg each to one-way contracts, it does create a battle for the crease.
Nedeljkovic had a tough year in Detroit, but he was able to get his game back on track during an extended stay with Grand Rapids of the AHL. I think he’d be an outstanding match alongside Jarry. Both handle the puck extremely well and have similarities in the way they play. And Hellberg is a solid option as a No. 3 and potentially more if called upon.
So where does that leave DeSmith? Good question. Pittsburgh now has four goalies on one-way contracts,\ and several more prospects in the minors that need crease time. So I can’t help but wonder if DeSmith is still a Penguin when the 2023-24 season begins. If you ask me, I think his days in Pittsburgh are numbered.
Did the Penguins get better in goal? I think so. A healthy Jarry is a top-10 NHL netminder. And even though a bounceback is needed from any of the three goalies behind him, at least they all have viable NHL credentials and, in the case of Nedeljkovic, upside yet to be capitalized upon.
Within the Peguins forward group, recently signed Matt Nieto comes with 651 games of NHL experience. And Dubas added a pair of talented reclamation projects in forwards Vinnie Hinostroza and Andreas Johnsson. I find the latter very intriguing: Johnsson and Dubas won the AHL’s Calder Cup together in 2018 with the Toronto Marlies. Johnsson was playoff MVP and went on to show well for the New Jersey Devils shortly after.
Even if Hinostroza and Johnsson don’t pan out at the NHL level, they will help the Penguins AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre. The Baby Pens had a dismal 2022-23 campaign, something unthinkable for the organization a short while ago. Wilkes-Barre has historically been very strong and a place known for cultivating young talent. That hasn’t been the case for several years. And Dubas has made it a point to improve the entire franchise. Pittsburgh needs to win at every level.
Notice I haven’t discussed free agent signing Ryan Graves yet? It’s not because I think the defenseman’s addition to the lineup was small beans. It’s because he factors into the greater conversation of the Penguins blueline.
I really like Graves. He’s an outstanding skater and he’s got a bomb of a shot. The former New Jersey Devils defenseman has the type of mobility coveted by every team in today’s NHL. I think he’ll play a ton of minutes in Pittsburgh and be an important piece of the Pittsburgh blueline.
But is Dubas done on the back end? Could he look to add another piece, like maybe Sharks defenseman Erik Karlsson? I think there’s room to make it happen. Especially if San Jose is willing to eat some money and take a player like Penguins defenseman Marcus Pettersson back in a trade.
Has it been a perfect offseason for Dubas? No, definitely not. His roster is still bloated by the contracts of forward Mikael Granlund and Pettersson. But those are pre-existing conditions leftover from a previous regime. And it’s only July.
Even though most NHL GM’s are poised to take a month off at the cottage, deals can still be consummated before training camp opens in September. And I don’t think Dubas is ready for a vacation just yet. He’s signed on for the long haul in Pittsburgh: retooling a roster doesn’t happen in a few weeks.
But even without another significant move, I like where the Penguins are today much better than I did in April when the team failed to qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time in 17 years.
The bottom line for me is that Dubas has addressed every positional need of the Penguins roster. And each signing had a clear purpose, with a player I like. The only one that makes me a little nervous is Jarry, and that’s only because of his injury history. But at this point, I could say the same about every NHL goalie not named Andrei Vasilevskiy or Connor Hellebuyck. So I think Dubas was smart to retain the best netminder available in free agency.
The Penguins aren’t the best NHL team on paper. But they’re trending in the right direction. And I’m impressed that Dubas was able to change the complexion of the franchise in so little time on the job. Is he done? We’ll find out over the next few weeks and months