Best- and Worst-Case Scenarios for Pittsburgh Penguins in 2014 Free Agency
As they head into the 2014-15 NHL season, the Pittsburgh Penguins have plenty of new faces on both the offensive and defensive sides of the puck thanks to the wonderful work done in free agency by general manager Jim Rutherford and his staff.
Management did a fine job addressing the problems at forward by acquiring the likes of Patric Hornqvist, Steve Downie and Blake Comeau as well as signing one of the top free-agent defensemen in Christian Ehrhoff.
The objective now for the organization is to use these new tools to return to the Stanley Cup Final, a place they haven’t been to since 2009.
Let’s take a look here at both the good and bad scenarios that could happen as a result of the signings that did and did not take place this offseason.
Best Case: Neal-Hornqvist Trade Works Exactly as Planned
The James Neal-Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling trade was by far the biggest move Pens fans have seen in a long time. It was a smart one, too.
Neal was a dynamic second-line winger who could score plenty of goals. However, he was also a one-dimensional forward on a team that was littered with them. Hornqvist, on the other hand, is a versatile winger who isn’t afraid of getting in front of the net and scoring those dirty goals.
Neal has had a lot of past success in the scoring department, but the 26-year-old former Dallas Star had a troubled postseason recently. A lot more was expected from him than a measly four points. To make things a little easier for Rutherford to trade him, there have been reports, per Ron Cook of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, that he wasn’t the best guy to have hanging around the locker room, either.
And let’s not overlook Spaling. The 25-year-old is known as a solid two-way forward with a decent upside to his career. Last season he netted 13 goals and 19 assists in 71 games for the Nashville Predators.
Overall, dumping Neal for two team-oriented players was by far the best move made by Rutherford so far in his short career with the Penguins.
Worst Case: Penguins Let the Wrong Guys Walk
According to Josh Yohe of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, back in June, Rutherford said he wouldn't be surprised if Jussi Jokinen and Matt Niskanen didn't re-sign with his team. His instincts were right. Jokinen signed with the Florida Panthers, while Niskanen signed with the Washington Capitals along with Brooks Orpik.
Niskanen, who was a part of the trade that sent him and Neal to the Penguins in 2011, had a phenomenal year. He was part of the blossoming young defensive corps and led the league in the plus/minus category for most of the year.
Jokinen, who was brought in at the 2013 trade deadline, was a vital piece to the Pens’ second line along with Neal and Evgeni Malkin. This year was only the second time in his career he scored more than 20 goals.
Letting the two go was hard, but it was understandable with the team’s tight salary-cap situation. However, it would have made more sense to let either Marcel Goc or Lee Stempniak walk instead of the both of them.
We'll see everything play out next season and then we can make the final judgment.
Best Case: All Three Restricted Free Agents Get New Contracts
The Penguins will have to deal with three restricted free agents this offseason. They are defenseman Simon Despres, and forwards Brandon Sutter and Nick Spaling.
All three must be given new contracts because each will play an important role next season. Spaling and Sutter are the depth players who are so desperately needed on the forward lines, while Despres is one of the budding defensive stars soon to join the ranks of Kris Letang and Olli Maatta on the blue line.
Each of these three free-agents is young and has a great upside. If the Penguins want success for years to come, then locking these guys in is the key to doing so. Rutherford knows this and it will be shocking if he decides to go in a different direction with any of them.