A Recap of the Penguins’ Puzzling Offseason


Gene J. Puskar/AP

Goalkeeper Matt Murray, who was a key contributor to the Penguins’ 2016-17 Stanley Cup wins, was traded to the Ottawa Senators.

The beginning of free agency is always a great day for sports fans of any league. You get to overreact to the changes by saying goodbye to a player you liked, but at the same time have optimism about the new guy who is joining the team. If you are lucky enough your team will land the big prize on the market, or you will be looking back on the infamous signing your team made. This year, the NHL had to move back that date from July 1st to October 9th, but that did not stop Pittsburgh Penguins General Manager Jim Rutherford from changing his roster around. After the colossal failure against the Montreal Canadiens — the worst team in the qualifying round — cost them a spot in the playoffs, changes needed to happen. On the bright side, the Pens got back their first round pick that they traded to the Minnesota Wild for winger Jason Zucker and instead sent next year’s first. Due to the 2020 NHL draft lottery rules, a team that lost in the qualifying round has a 1 in 8 chance to pick first overall and take a generational talent in Alexis Lafreniere. Unfortunately, the Pens have the 15th overall pick and watched as the New York Rangers picked him up.

This is when Jim Rutherford’s itchy trigger finger in trading kicks in, and keeping with his annual tradition, he instantly trades the pick again. Jim is looking to bring back old faces, one that only had a cup of coffee here and was the main piece he sent away to bring in Phil Kessel. His name, Kasperi Kapanen, a guy that has developed since joining the Toronto Maple Leafs, but never to what he was projected to be. Along with trading the first, the Pens sent a top prospect in Fillip Hallander, the signing rights to 4th liner Evan Rodrigues, and minor leaguer David Warsofsky and also got Pontas Aberg and prospect Jesper Lindgren. “When you look at what our goal is, to contend within this group of [Crosby, Malkin and Kris Letang], these are the kind of deals you have to make,” said Jim Rutherford regarding the trade. This pretty much means that Kapanen will be playing with Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin. Overall the trade isn’t that bad since Kapanen has a term on his contract, but if Toronto develops the player they took with the Penguins pick, it could become very bad.

Next, it’s time to shed the salary of a guy that wastes cap space and a roster spot in NIck Bjugstad. As one of the tallest centers in the league, he doesn’t play physical or doesn’t put up points like his contract should reflect. The Pens dumped him off to his hometown Minnesota Wild for a measly seven round pick. To make things worse is that the Wild deemed that the Penguins retain half of his salary for this upcoming season, so instead of clearing 4 million, they were only able to clear 2 million.

Now that the Pens brought in an old face, it’s time to say farewell to Patric Hornqvist. After signing a large contract he has never played up to his ability. Although he’s the heart and soul of the team, and made big contributions to both Stanley Cups, his age is starting to catch up with him. Rutherford should be able to net a big return for Hornqvist…until you realize his recent track record butchers trades and the Pens ambitions are too high. The Pens’ defense is needing an upgrade and the Florida Panthers are willing to take on Hornqvist’s salary. Do they target a Mackenzie Weegar who is a young defenceman on the rise, or maybe go after Keith Yandle? No, that requires too much logic; trade Honqvist to the Panthers for their worst defenseman Mikey Matheson who has 6 more years left on his deal and has had an abysmal year with Florida. Add a complementary Colten Scevior and the deal is complete. “This was a hard one,” This deal was supposed to be a salary dump, but the Penguins ended up gaining salary in the end because of Jim Rutherford logic.

It seems as if the Penguins were set to enter next season with the third defensive pairing being Matheson and Jack Johnson. Not until Johnson was bought out of his contract which was a very joyous day for yinzers. It was a bad idea from the start and the Penguins tied a ball and chain around their ankles with Johnson for five years. What’s worse is when us fans kept begging to get rid of him Jim Rutherford kept making excuses for his lack of production because he never was willing to own up to that awful mistake until now.

Once again it was time to say bye to a guy that was a key contributor in the 2016-17 cup runs. With the Pens locking up all-star goalie Triston Jarry for three years, and Matt Murray wanting to be paid like Vezina Trophy winner Conner Hellebuyck, it was time to ship him off. Ottawa was willing to take him because they have a lot of cap space and he would be a good fit for the Sens. The Penguins are looking to bolster the draft pick selection and prospect pool, so in return for Murray, the Senators sent an early second round pick, and a very good prospect in John Gruden. “We would like to thank Matt for everything he’s done in his five seasons with the Penguins. He was instrumental to our back-to-back Stanley Cup Championships, and we wish him the best,” said GM Jim Rutherford regarding the trade.

Then once free agency opened the Penguins were not going to re-sign Dominik Simon, Conner Sheary, and Justin Schultz, and Jack Johnson was released. Schultz was picked up by the Capitals in a slight overpayment, Johnson went to the New York Rangers, and Simon went to the Calgary Flames. The Pens had some solid bylow signings to help out the third and fourth lines. First, they brought back Evan Rodrigues from the Maple Leafs because they didn’t give hima a qualifying offer. He’ll be a depth piece that will replace someone when they’re injured like he has done his entire time with the Penguins. Next, they decided to bring in a big center from the Calgary Flames in Mark Jankowski. Although Jankowski had a down year last year, his previous two with the Flames were very solid, and playing on a league minimum deal means there is little risk in his signing. Finally, they needed to find someone like Jack Johnson, but that doesn’t want a long term deal Cody Ceci fits that description. Ceci has been nothing but a pylon for the Senators and Maple Leafs and fans from both teams dislike him a lot and wanted him gone after every game. Hopefully he can mimic his 2017 version where he wasn’t that bad in 2021, but again he doesn’t have a large cap hit so it shouldn’t damage the Pens if he plays like he’s known for.

Overall, the Penguins did okay in free agency, but the trades that they made prior to it are rather odd. Dismantling an aging core is a hard but necessary decision, but if the Pens are still trying to compete for Stanley Cups, they need to bring in young players that can contribute similar to 2016 and 2017. That Matheson trade could turn into a gigantic albatross of a contract in two years considering the quality of his game has been taking a turn for the worst and he’s basically Jack Johnson 2.0 with double the contract length. The depth signings are extremely important because of all the injuries that piled up last year, and Kapanen will probably improve playing with Crosby and Guentzel.