Knee-Jerk Reactions to Pittsburgh Penguins Free Agency Moves

Steve Rodenbaugh@rodeyslContributor IIIJuly 3, 2014

Knee-Jerk Reactions to Pittsburgh Penguins Free Agency Moves

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    Eager to turn the page on last season's playoff collapse and look ahead to next season, the Pittsburgh Penguins followed an eventful draft weekend with a busy and surprising start to the free agency period.

    The Pens spent last offseason working in-house to lock their core players to long-term contracts. This offseason has already proven to be much more eventful as the new general manager, Jim Rutherford, charts a new course for the franchise and overhauls the Pens' roster.

    As the dust settles on what has been a busy couple of days for the Penguins, let's take a look at where they stand after the first 24 hours of the free-agent feeding frenzy.

Who Moved On?

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    Of their 10 NHL-level unrestricted free agents, the Penguins have lost six of them to other teams so far, and that number figures to go up as general managers look to round out their rosters with depth players.

    With limited cap space and with a wealth of minor league defensemen waiting for a chance at the NHL, the Pens figured to lose Brooks Orpik, Matt Niskanen and Deryk Engelland but no one could have predicted the ridiculous amount of money that they would fetch on the open market.

    While most figured Niskanen was looking for a seven-year contract in upwards of $5 million per season, the fact that Brooks Orpik would be offered a five-year deal for $5.5 million a year was just as shocking as the fact that both signed with the Washington Capitals.

    Meanwhile, the Calgary Flames signed Engelland, the Pens' seventh defensemen who rarely saw the ice down the stretch and in the playoffs, to a three-year deal worth $2.9 million a year; a deal which makes Rob Scuderi's $3.375 annual cap hit look like a bargain.

    Up front, Joe Vitale (Arizona Coyotes), Tanner Glass (New York Rangers) and Jussi Jokinen (Florida Panthers) all left for multiyear contracts with sizable raises. This leaves the Pens with some holes to fill, especially on Evgeni Malkin's line.

    While watching these players leave town may be disappointing to Pens fans, none of these losses were unexpected as the Pens look to remake their roster and add more youth to the mix, especially on the blue line.

Who Signed On?

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    Usually teams with salary-cap constraints aren't expected to be very active on the opening day of free agency, but the Penguins weren't idle bystanders.

    Within the first hour, the Pens made a splash by signing Buffalo Sabres defenseman Christian Ehrhoff, despite assertions by team management that they were looking to promote defensive prospects like Scott Harrington, Brian Dumoulin and Derrick Pouliot next season.

    Next, the Pens bolstered their bottom-six forwards by adding Blake Comeau from the Columbus Blue Jackets and by resigning Marcel Goc, who was acquired at the trade deadline by former general manager Ray Shero. They also added Steve Downie from the Philadelphia Flyers on the second day.

    While there was an expectation that the Pens would look to add a top-six winger, perhaps Nikolai Kulemin, Pens GM Jim Rutherford took a different approach and indicated that he felt no pressure to do so, at least right now.

Defenseman Christian Ehrhoff

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    Background:  After a 14-goal, 36-assist performance with the Vancouver Canucks in the 2010-11 season, Ehrhoff signed a massive 10-year, $40 million contract with the Buffalo Sabres and averaged five goals and 22 assists per season since joining the team. 

    As part of the Buffalo Sabres rebuilding, Ehrhoff's contract was bought out just before the start of free agency and he instantly became one of the top defensemen on the market.

    Contract:  One-year deal with a $4 million cap hit.

    How he fits:  Known as one of the top all-around defenseman in the NHL, Ehrhoff fits in well with his ability to jump up into the play and still get back in position in his own zone when needed.

    Verdict:  While Ehrhoff's skating and point shot on the power play will help soften the blow of the Pens losing almost half of their defensive roster from last season, the move is curious since both he and Paul Martin, who play very similar styles, will be unrestricted free agents next summer.

    With several of the top defensive prospects pushing for playing time and with little cap space remaining, one has to think that Ehrhoff's signing opens the door for the Pens to trade either Paul Martin or Rob Scuderi.

Goaltender Thomas Greiss

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    Background:  After bouncing around in the San Jose Sharks organization for a few years, Greiss got a chance to be a backup at the NHL level last season with the Arizona Coyotes. For his new team, he tallied an impressive 2.29 goals-against average and a .920 save percentage.

    Contract:  Greiss signed a one-year, two-way contract worth $1 million. 

    How he fits:  Viewed by Penguins scouts as a potential starting goaltender at the NHL level, Greiss will battle Jeff Zatkoff for the backup role in training camp, and the loser will be heading to the AHL. 

    Verdict:  While the Pens are high on goaltending prospects, Tristan Jarry, Mathew Murray and Eric Hartzell are all at least a year away from competing for a roster spot. Greiss is NHL ready and could be a long-term answer if Fleury stumbles and is not retained next summer.

    While it is curious that the Pens did not seek a goaltender on a two-year deal and now have all three NHL-level goaltenders entering free agency next summer, this is a small-risk, big-reward type of signing and was a smart move to make.

Forward Blake Comeau

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    Background:  After spending parts of six seasons with the New York Islanders, Comeau was traded mid-season each of the last two seasons. He played last season with the Columbus Blue Jackets.

    Contract:  One year, $700K—which is a pay cut from the one-year, $1 million contract he signed last offseason.

    How he fits:  Able to match up physically with the opponents top line while also possessing the speed and size needed to effectively forecheck, Comeau helps make the Pens a true four-line team and is another low-risk, high-reward signing for the Pens.

    Verdict:  After watching their third and fourth lines struggle in the postseason, the Pens needed to shore up their bottom-six forward rotation. Comeau, who is a 6'1" and 200-pound former 20-goal scorer who can play either wing, helps them do that.

Forward Marcel Goc

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    Background: Acquired from the Florida Panthers at the trade deadline in exchange for a fifth-round pick in 2014 and a third-round pick in 2015.

    Contract: One-year contract at $1.2 million—a $500K annual salary cut from Goc's previous three-year, $5.1 million contract signed with Florida Panthers in 2011. 

    How he fits:  Brought in to win faceoffs and play strong defense, Goc did both extremely well by winning a team-high 58.5 percent of his faceoffs with the Pens after having led the Panthers in hits and blocked shots prior to being traded.

    Verdict:  Goc figures to be penciled in as the team's fourth line center and, with Brandon Sutter's future in Pittsburgh still up in the air, he could move up to a third-line role if Jim Rutherford decides, for the second time as an NHL general manager, to trade him.

    With almost $20 million of their salary cap committed each year to Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, the Pens may not be able to afford the $4 million plus per year that Sutter is reportedly seeking. This could open the door for Goc to assume a bigger role if they decided to deal Sutter.

Forward Steve Downie

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    Background: Having been traded from the Colorado Avalanche to the Philadelphia Flyers for former Penguin Max Talbot, Downie tallied 17 points and 70 penalty minutes in 51 games with the Flyers. However, he missed time down the stretch due to injuries.

    Contract:  After making an average of $2.65 million on a two-year deal, Downie signed a one-year, $1 million contract with the Pens.

    How he fits:  Known as an abrasive player with some offensive upside, Downie brings the kind of grit and toughness that the Pens have been lacking in recent years. He could play anything from a third-line checking role to a top-line bodyguard role for Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin. 

    Verdict:  While there were other punishing forwards still available, like Steve Ott, Downie comes cheaper. He also has more offensive upside because he will be reunited with Rick Tocchet, who coached Downie in Tampa when he was posting double-digit goals and 100-plus penalty minutes each season.

    Having watched their stars get knocked around by the opposition without consequence, Pens ownership made adding grit and character to the roster a top priority. This signing is a low-risk and inexpensive way of doing just that.

Overall Impression

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    Having completed the draft and the first round of free-agent signings, it's clear that the Penguins felt a need to overhaul their roster and have done a good job in doing so.

    By drafting Kasperi Kapanen, trading James Neal for Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling and signing Steve Downie, Blake Comeau and Marcel Goc, the Pens have gone from a top-heavy team to a more balanced one. In addition, they now have eight legitimate 20-goal threats on their roster.

    On defense, the signing of Christian Ehrhoff definitely upgrades their top defensive pairings and would soften the blow if management decides to trade Paul Martin if an extension can't be worked out.

    In net, Marc-Andre Fleury is still the starter (and should be) but, at 29, the Pens were smart to let him play out his contract to see if he's really turned the corner before they commit to him with a multiyear extension.

    The Pens lack of depth and grit has definitely been addressed. However, there is a big lingering question as to whether the Pens have enough talent to play alongside Evgeni Malkin since he lost both of his linemates—James Neal via trade and Jussi Jokinen via free agency. 

    After trading Neal, Pens general manager Jim Rutherford acknowledged that he needed to get someone to play alongside Malkin, but he failed to do so thus far and, barring a trade, will not have enough cap space left with which to work.

    Despite this issue, the Pens have emerged from the NHL Entry Draft and free agency as a better team on paper but, with four months until the opening game of the 2014-15 season, it remains to be seen whether they will be a better team on the ice.