The highlight of the NHL's offseason kicks off at noon today as team's are officially allowed to sign free agents for the upcoming season. Draft weekend gave Pens fans a peek at the frenzy to come as Jim Rutherford and company diligently worked the phones to swing a deal for a top six winger before falling short. With that in mind, the Pittsburgh Penguins do enter free agency with a well defined list of objectives, some more plausible than others, to retool the roster and put the team back in contention for the Stanley Cup.
[X] Top 6 Winger
With Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, the Penguins are as set at center in the top six as any team possibly can be. As draft weekend showed, making sure their wingers are able to help carry the load is going to be a priority for Pittsburgh. While trade targets such as Phil Kessel, TJ Oshie, Patrick Sharp, and Jeff Skinner among others remain out there, the right free agent signing could provide enough of an impact without needing to sacrifice assets the team can't really afford to part with. The team can get into the mix with players like Michael Frolik and Alexander Semin while having the fallback option of working a trade if they miss out on their FA targets.
7/1 Update: Penguins have acquired Phil Kessel and Pittsburgh's 2016 2nd round pick (plus Tyler Biggs and Tim Erixon) from the Toronto Maple Leafs for Kasperi Kapanen, Scott Harrington, Nick Spaling, and 2016 1st and 3rd round draft picks with Toronto retaining $1.2 million per year on the Kessel contract.
Penguins have signed former KHL All Star Sergei Plotnikov to a 1 year deal for $925k.
[ ] Top 4 Defenseman
Over the past two seasons, the Penguins will have lost top four caliber defensemen Matt Niskanen, Simon Despres, Christian Ehrhoff, and Paul Martin either through free agency or abject stupidity. The Penguins have had enough defensive depth that those departures won't decimate the blue line, but they would be wise to add a legitimate top four defenseman to the mix to help balance what is now a top heavy lineup with question marks behind the top pair of Kris Letang and Olli Maatta. Cody Franson is the big target on the market today, though there will be decent secondary options to consider if he fails to sign with Pittsburgh.
[ ] Shed Excess Salary
The deadline has come and gone on buyouts for the 2015 offseason and Rob Scuderi remains a Pittsburgh Penguin. Whether because they didn't want to take the cap hit, they thought a trade is still a likely option, or they think he's still a valuable contributor to the team (hopefully not), the Pens decided not to go this route. Clearing Scuderi off the cap will not only free up space, but it will make the defense better from having him not in the lineup. Along with Scuderi's $3.375 AAV, the team could also look to move Brandon Sutter's $3.3 million AAV and Nick Spaling's $2.2 million as both are making more than their contributions in the lineup and could give Pittsburgh some additional flexibility.
7/1 Update: With the Kessel trade, shedding salary becomes even more critical for the Penguins. Kessel's $6.8 million AAV (minus any retained salary) eats up a good chunk of the cap space the team had to work, though unloading Nick Spaling's contract clears $2.2 million for 2016.
[X] Rebuild the Bottom 6
Heading into free agency, the team only returns Sutter and Spaling as regulars from last season's bottom six. The moves made at the bottom of the lineup will depend largely on the other moves made in free agency. Getting a top six winger will push players like Chris Kunitz or Pascal Dupuis down in the lineup, which will serve to bolster the bottom six from within. Callups such as Oskar Sundqivst, Scott Wilson, or Conor Sheary among others can also provide reinforcements from within the organization at a cheap, cost controlled price. If Sutter and/or Spaling are traded, additional spots in the lineup will be opened up as well. The key to free agency is finding players who can contribute more than the price the market is setting. The Penguins managed to hit on a couple of players last offseason in Blake Comeau and Steve Downie; it'll be important for them to add cheap, capable depth this offseason as well so they can focus their efforts higher up in the lineup.
7/1 Update: Spaling's departure opens another spot in the bottom six, though Kessel's arrival guarantees, at least for the moment, that either Chris Kunitz or Pascal Dupuis will be out of the top six for the upcoming season.
Plotnikov adds further depth along the wing and provides competition for the final spot in the top six. Plotnikov, Kunitz, Dupuis, and Bennett all being on the roster pushes three of the four into the bottom six. If Sutter isn't moved, he'll have the best linemates he's had to work with on a consistent basis. It would make sense for the team to bring in another bottom six forward to bolster the overall depth, but filling out the bottom six with players like Sundqvist and Wilson will lead to a much better lineup overall than what has been iced the past two seasons.