The Penguins failed to win the Stanley Cup again this season after being swept out of the Eastern Conference Finals by the Boston Bruins largely due to the phenomenal play of Tukka Rask, who posted an otherworldly .985 save percentage in the series. However, many media members and fans are making a bigger deal out of this than they should, calling for everything from replacement of Dan Bylsma to trading Malkin because the “have two of the top five forwards in the league” model doesn’t work. There seems to be a perception that every year is either a Stanley Cup Championship or a complete failure, which is not a good way to evaluate a team’s performance.
The best team only wins the cup somewhere between 20 and 27 percent of the time depending on the metric you use to define best team. The best team by goal differential only wins 22% of the time, by possession numbers around 20% (I can’t find this link but I remember reading it a few months ago), and the President’s trophy winner wins 27% of the time. Even if you had the best team every single season you would only expect a Cup win once every four to five years. The Penguins have a cup within the past five years, and they haven’t been the best team every season. A combination of luck and injuries has a huge impact on a team’s chances of winning in any given postseason, because that success or failure is dictated by seven game samples. Teams that are consistently good in the regular season should not be dismantled as the result of playoff “failures,” mainly because the changes are often based on narrative driven reasons (not tough enough, lack of leadership, etc.) rather than the actual reasons (bad luck in terms of bounces/goaltending, injuries, or the quality of opposing teams).
Despite the fact that this year’s disappointing result does not necessitate changes, they will be coming this offseason anyways. Several players of varying importance are due to become free agents, and both Malkin and Letang are due for extensions going into the final year of their contracts. The goaltending situation could also be due for a change, mainly because Fleury takes up $5MM against the salary cap–a large number for an average goalie that the team doesn’t trust in the playoffs.
The Free Agents
RFA: Tyler Kennedy, Dustin Jeffrey, Robert Bortuzzo
I would expect that the Penguins will at least try to keep all three of the restricted free agents. I could also see all of them potentially leaving. Kennedy is a solid bottom six option despite the criticism he sometimes gets for his decision making. However, if he wants a raise on his current $2MM salary the Penguins will likely let him walk. Jeffrey and Bortuzzo would both be nice depth options to keep around, but since both are likely to be offered under $1.1MM they could leave without compensation. Both could choose to pursue other offers where they would receive more playing time than they have in Pittsburgh.
UFA: Jerome Iginla, Brenden Morrow, Matt Cooke, Pascal Dupuis, Craig Adams, Douglas Murray, Mark Eaton
This is where the Penguins stand to take a big hit. Pascal Dupuis and Matt Cooke have been vital parts of this team over the past several years, but they are now both 34 and hitting the open market. Dupuis is coming off one of the best seasons of his career, and could be poised to cash in on one final sizeable contact. Cooke is one of the most effective penalty killers in the league and his checkered history in terms of bad hits won’t hurt his value when it comes to free agency. Shero hasn’t shown any inclination to give big money or term to older role players, so I wouldn’t be shocked if both guys leave unless they are willing to take 1-2 year deals at discounted rates.
Of the trade deadline acquisitions Iginla is only one I expect to return, and at a sizeable discount from the $7MM he made last season. Morrow and Murray were both (predictably) bad, neither can skate at all anymore and while Murray’s ability to bury people is great he can’t be relied on to play consistently good defense. Iginla wasn’t spectacular by any means, and he hasn’t been an overly effective possession player for a few years, but he did what he was brought in to do: provide some secondary offensive value (11 points in 13 regular season games/12 points in 15 playoff games).
Craig Adams will likely be resigned, despite his age he is still effective on the penalty kill and shouldn’t command much on the open market. Eaton did a great job for a guy signed off the street during the season, but he really isn’t the kind of player that a team with Stanley Cup aspirations wants to be forced into playing. In the end I think Eaton will be let go, but will be kept in mind as an option if a crisis of depth emerges next season (like it did when they signed him this year). Pittsburgh should be looking to give a younger guy (like Brian Dumoulin) a shot to take the third paring spot next season.
Evgeni Malkin will be a Penguin next year and far into the future. Everything that the team has said suggests that Shero will pay him whatever he wants for however long he wants in order to keep him in Pittsburgh. Nothing from Malkin’s side has suggested anything other than a desire to stay (he will get, and reject, the prerequisite KHL offer that every Russian NHLer does).
Kris Letang is another matter. Despite the weak showing in the conference final (and the playoffs overall really…his play was shaky despite the high point totals) he is one of the best defenseman in the league and deserved the Norris nomination he got. He is an absolute steal on his current deal of $3.5MM per season, but that will change with his next contract. Letang will likely be looking for something in the neighborhood of $7MM to $7.5MM, putting him among the highest paid defensemen in the NHL. Chances are at this price the Penguins will not be able to afford to keep both Letang and Malkin, so I expect that Shero will do exactly what he did with Jordan Staal last summer: trade Letang with one year remaining on his deal. I won’t speculate on the exact return, but I would expect it to be bigger than the return for Staal last year.
The goaltending situation is likely to be one of the more hotly debated topics throughout this offseason. Long time starter Marc-Andre Fleury lost his starting job in the playoffs to Thomas Vokoun, who proceeded to play extremely well in leading the Penguins to the conference finals. Vokoun at 37 isn’t likely to be an everyday starter again, but he is one of the best goalies in the NHL over the past decade, and should see a good amount of time in net next season. Meanwhile, Fleury has been a roughly league average goalie over the course of his NHL career and carries a $5MM cap hit. Fleury’s past playoff failings prompted Ray Shero to bring in Vokoun last offseason as an insurance policy against another playoff collapse from the goalie position. The Vokoun move showed the lack of faith management had in Fleury at the end of last postseason, and I find it hard to believe this year made them any more confident. Based on that, I wouldn’t be surprised if Fleury is elsewhere next season. I expect that Shero will attempt a trade, but in the end Fleury may be bought out to free the cap space needed to fill some of the holes left by departing free agents. Another goalie will need to be brought in to platoon with Vokoun, but options should be available either via free agency or trade once the offseason begins.
If the Penguins do trade Letang, as this lineup configuration assumes, it is likely that one of the NHL roster holes would be filled through the return on that deal. In particular, it would be nice to bump Engelland out of the top 6 and replace him with a better puck moving/skating defenseman. This lineup wouldn’t be as impressive on paper as the past few years, primarily due to the losses of Letang/Dupuis/Cooke; however, it would still be a formidable group. The development of the younger players, Bennett/Despres/Dumoulin would go a long way toward helping keep Pittsburgh among the NHL’s elite.