With the way the Pittsburgh Penguins limped to the finish line, going 4-9-2 over their last 15 games and clinching a playoff berth on the last day of the regular season, the fact that they were knocked out of the playoffs by the Presidents' Trophy winning New York Rangers in five games should have come as little of a surprise. The way the series played out should, as Pens managed to hold the Rangers, the third highest scoring team in the league at 3.02 goals/game, to just 11 goals through 5 games. Marc-Andre Fleury is virtually the entire reason for this, and after years of sub-standard performances in the playoffs, these last two years he's finally been able to stand tall and provide excellent goaltending. Unfortunately his teammates weren't, as the offense has become a shell of their former selves. The Pittsburgh Penguins, as recently as last season, used to be a team that could have benefited from a net front presence but still was able to fill the opposition's net with the best of them. Yet they've increasingly become a team that absolutely needs a net front presence for any chance to score. Worst of all, a power play that routinely has featured Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang among others has completely disappeared. Since December 7, the power play has ranked just 29th in the league. That, simply, is completely unacceptable.
Even though the season has ended far earlier than the fans and organization would have liked, the offseason only truly begins for the players and fans as the organization has a lot of work ahead of them. And the "them" refers more to the positions in the organization, not the people who currently fill them. After the break, a look at how the offseason could, and in my opinion should, unfold.
Fire David Morehouse and Jim Rutherford
I've been over this before, so I'll keep it brief. The Pittsburgh Penguins need to clean house in the top of their organization and hire a competent hockey mind to head up the hockey operations. David Morehouse seized control last offseason and quickly showed he was clueless in how to proceed. The General Manager army was a direct result of him trying to cover his ass, and it blew up spectacularly. Rumors swirled of Jim Rutherford and the Associate/Assistant GMs having fundamental differences in their vision for the team and it's future, and this fractured decision making led to a team with no direction. Both men are far from qualified for the jobs they hold, and both men need to be shown the door.
Mike Johnston could be included in this list, and might find himself there as the offseason plays out, but shit flows down hill and has greatly affected his ability to make a chicken salad. The horrid power play was headed up by a coach he was forced to have on his staff. The team he inherited was top heavy, and the GM group did a poor job of identifying talent to reinforce the roster. They didn't seem to be on the same page either. Mike Johnston's breakouts relied on mobile, puck-moving defensemen, and Rutherford traded a puck-moving defensemen for one who just moved away from the puck. If a coach like Mike Babcock is willing to come to Pittsburgh, Johnston won't have much of a chance, but unlike Dan Bylsma last year he should be given a realistic chance of sticking around as those above him are replaced.
Identify the Pending Free Agents Who Need to Go
The Penguins have the potential for a good bit of roster turnover heading into next year, as they currently have only 14 players under contract for next season. They should be able to identify very quickly in the process who they have no interest in bringing back. Those players should include:
Craig Adams - Obviously
Steve Downie - Downie had a fairly productive year, with 14 goals and 14 assists in 72 games. He managed this while playing bottom 6 minutes, and his 1.70 points/60 at even strength is a very strong number for a bottom six player. He finished 5th on the team among players with at least 500 minutes in a Penguins uniform. Downie posted a FF% of 51.0, though his teammates did post a 52.2 FF% without him on the ice. Even so, the above would make him a great candidate to return on a reasonable contract. So why is he on this list? Penalties. Downie was such a liability on the ice this season that his complete and total lack of discipline trumps what otherwise would be a productive hockey player. The team simply cannot trust him in any important situation, and when it reaches that point all parties involved are better off moving on.
Maxim Lapierre - Lapierre was working on becoming something of a cult hero among a subsection of the fanbase, as he greatly stepped up his asshole game and became a humongous pest to the Rangers and Henrik Lundqvist. Unfortunately, this doesn't erase the fact that he's been awful since coming over from St. Louis. He's been an anchor in the possession game and managed to tally only 2 assists in 39 total games. Attempting to re-sign Lapierre based on such a small subset of games would be the type of mistake this team has been making in their bottom six for years.
Get Rid of Rob Scuderi
He's not a free agent like the others, but Rob Scuderi needs to go. Easily the biggest black mark on Ray Shero's tenure as GM, Scuderi has been a $3.375 million anchor on the team for the past two seasons and has two more years under contract. If there's anything approaching a trade market for Scuderi the Penguins need to do their best to get him out of Pittsburgh. They could also buyout his contract. Ryan Wilson breaks down what the cap penalties for a buyout would look like. If they're able to get any takers on the trade market, they should be willing to retain at least the $1.3 million that a buyout would leave on their books next season, as this route would then free up the nearly $1 million in cap hit for the 2017-18 and 2018-19 season, but however it happens Scuderi needs to once again be a former Penguin before the offseason is over.
Make a Call on Paul Martin and Christian Ehrhoff
The Penguins would need a top 4 defenseman this offseason even if there were no concerns about the health of Kris Letang and Olli Maatta. Letang, Maatta, Pouliot, and possibly Cole as the 4th defenseman would be a big roll of the dice to take. Add in the severity of the injuries and it's imperative for the team to add depth at the top of the roster.
The team has two top 4 caliber defensemen about to hit the open market, but it's unclear how willing either would be to return, not to mention the difficulties the team would face signing them from a salary cap standpoint. The team needs to do their due diligence on both players, and if they decide that they're going to be unable (or unwilling) to re-sign either player they need to move their rights for draft pick compensation. Even if it's a later round pick, it gives the team another chance to add a young player to the prospect pool, and whatever the odds it's possible they find a diamond in the rough.
Personally, I would bite the bullet and do what it takes, within reason, to keep Martin in Pittsburgh. Several factors work in his favor: at 34, his contract would escape the 35+ penalty if he retires before the end of the contract, and given the cerebral nature of his game he should age well and still be effective as he plays into his late 30s. Per the new CBA, teams cannot have a year to year variance greater than 35%, nor a difference of greater than 50% between the highest and lowest years.
A look at a reasonable contract stretched out over the 8 year maximum and falling within the league rules shows the team could possibly keep Paul Martin in Pittsburgh for a small increase in his AAV over the course of his contract if they chose to do so, without penalty if Martin retires before it's over.
It has potential to become an issue later in the contract, but going without signing a top 4 defenseman has as much potential, if not more, of becoming a bigger issue right now in Crosby and Malkin's prime years, and the price of getting a legitimate top 4 defenseman on the free agency market will be costly as well for a lesser known quantity in Pittsburgh.
Sign the Restricted Free Agents
Beau Bennett and Ian Cole, likely along with Brian Dumoulin, are pending free agents who likely will have a role in Pittsburgh next season. Each player has a roughly $900k AAV on their current contract - the Penguins need to use the leverage that restricted free agency provides them to keep their next contracts as cheap as they possibly can.
Determine the Fate of the Remaining UFAs
The rest of the free agents are players the team should be willing to bring back next season, if the salary and term is reasonable. Blake Comeau and Daniel Winnik, despite the latter's disappearing act in the playoffs, are players that can make a positive contribution in the bottom six, but the team shouldn't rush out and overpay to keep either in Pittsburgh. Thomas Greiss had a better season in Pittsburgh than most give him credit for. Greiss' save percentage at even strength wasn't far behind Fleury's (0.922 vs 0.926), and his High Danger SV% was actually much better (0.856 vs 0.837). The biggest issue with bringing Greiss back, assuming he wants to re-sign behind an established starter, would be the cap hit. It's not as important to have an established backup behind Fleury after this past season, though a regression is always possible, so in an offseason where every cap dollar counts it's entirely possible that the team goes with Jeff Zatkoff's $600k cap hit for the upcoming year regardless.
Prepare for the Draft
Once again, the Penguins scouting staff finds themselves without much to do on draft day, as the team's 1st (Edmonton), 3rd (Florida), and 4th (Toronto) round picks all belong to other teams. The team can potentially add draft picks if they deal Martin and/or Ehrhoff's rights, as well as possibly adding draft picks if a team signs Shero and/or Bylsma. But for the moment, the Pens will make a draft pick in the middle of the 2nd round before waiting until the 5th round to continue drafting.
Free Agency and Managing the Salary Cap
Heading into the offseason, the Penguins have 14 players under contract for $59.0 million AAV, needing a top 6 winger and a top 4 defenseman among the 6 forwards, 2 defensemen, and backup goalie they need to fill out the roster. Signing their RFAs and promoting Zatkoff would bring the team up to 18 players with an AAV of at least $62.4 million at the minimum tender for the RFAs, though the actual contracts for Bennett, Cole, and Dumoulin will likely see that number rise higher. With a yet to be announced cap ceiling for 2015-16 that could potentially see the salary cap decrease, the Penguins could potentially have as little as $5.5 million of cap space to work with under that scenario. Getting rid of Scuderi would add roughly $2 million in space if bought out (or up to $3.375 if a willing trade partner is found), and the team should explore moving both Brandon Sutter and Nick Spaling's contracts, as both players are overpaid for the production they bring to the bottom six. Every dollar counts in a salary cap system, and those two players are costing an unnecessary amount for what they're actually bringing to the table. They do have some younger players, notably Kasperi Kapanen and Oskar Sundqvist, who should be able to make the roster on cost-efficient, entry level contracts at forward and give the Pens an influx of talent at a low cost ($925k AAV each).
The start of the new league year on July 1 not only kicks off free agency, but it will allow teams to begin negotiating new contracts for players entering their final year, and the Penguins will have two important players coming up in Olli Maatta and David Perron, something the team needs to be cognizant of as they hand out any money for the 2016-17 season. Each contract will come with challenges, with the status of Maatta's shoulder, and the lackluster second half of the season for Perron, likely to impact the negotiations.
It's going to be a busy offseason for the Pittsburgh Penguins, one that sees them have to make some important decisions that will affect the direction of the team moving forward with a salary cap situation that can very possibly make things incredibly difficult. Under these circumstances, the team cannot possible entrust Jim Rutherford to be the one in charge of making these decisions, nor can the leave David Morehouse in charge of building a competent hockey ops. If the team truly cares about competing for championships, they need to clean house in their front office and get executives who can actually make that happen into positions of power. The moves of last offseason were made in the hopes of not wasting any more of Crosby and Malkin's primes. After failing badly, ownership needs to take charge and make sure that doesn't happen again.