Pittsburgh Penguins' Biggest Takeaways from the Start of 2014 Free Agency
Nobody expected the Penguins to go out and sign the top free agents on July 1 primarily because they didn’t have a whole lot to work with due to tight salary cap restrictions. Most of the coveted forwards, like Matt Moulson and Paul Stastny, all signed pretty hefty contracts that the Pens would be unable to meet.
Management, however, has been able to work its way around the money issue and sign some promising depth players for a bargain. That’s what the plan was all along, right? Piecing together a bottom-six forward lineup to take the weight off its superstars is what the club’s front office has been working towards since 2009.
The Penguins acquired six new players in the past week and brought in winger Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling on draft day in exchange for James Neal. Marcel Goc re-signed for one more year as well.
Let’s take a look here at the biggest takeaways so far from free agency and what to expect for next season.
Rutherford Is Proving He Is the Right Fit at GM
You could say the 2014-15 season began as soon as Rutherford and Nashville Predators’ GM David Poile both approved the Neal-Hornqvist trade on June 27. This was Rutherford’s first move at the helm of the Penguins’ ship and the trade certainly gave fans an idea of which way he’s steering it.
I think Rutherford’s chance of having success with the Penguins is more promising than it seems, especially after seeing his logic play out in free agency.
Rutherford stated in his initial speech back in early June that blockbuster moves weren't necessary for the team’s future success, per Yahoo Sports' Nicholas Cotsonika.
“I don’t think we have all the pieces here to get back to where the Penguins were in ’09, but with some changes – they don’t have to be sweeping changes – we can do this in the very near future,” Rutherford said.
While he did not necessarily ignore this statement, he showed by making the huge draft-day trade that he isn’t confined to his own words in order to improve the roster. Again, it wasn’t a “sweeping change,” but it will be a lasting one nonetheless.
Him and his staff made subtle, but smart moves in free agency. These acquisitions may not be sexy, but they are necessary, and that says a lot about how Rutherford plans to run this organization.
New Forwards Will Drastically Change Lines
The biggest facelift this offseason was given to the forward lines. Jussi Jokinen, Tanner Glass, Brian Gibbons, Joe Vitale and Neal are the forwards who are calling another city their new home now.
It didn’t take long to find their replacements. New names include Hornqvist and Spaling as well as Steve Downie and Blake Comeau.
The biggest change fans will see in the lineup this year will be on the second line. Evgeni Malkin’s line last year, which included both Jokinen and Neal, was extremely successful. Replacing that chemistry is a tough task at hand, but it can be done.
Adding Hornqvist to the right-wing slot on the second line to replace Neal will be the smartest move. Though he didn’t find the back of the net as often as Neal did, he scored a lot of the same type of goals in Nashville, which come from within the slot and in front of the net. He can play defense too, while Neal was too one-dimensional.
In the bottom-six, the fourth line will be the new home of Comeau, a 28-year-old left wing whom the Penguins brought in as a replacement for Glass. Glass’ ruggedness and willingness to drop the gloves will be missed by fans, however, his offensive contributions will not.
Downie, an ex-Flyer, brings a very disruptive style of play, which will compliment restricted free-agent center Brandon Sutter on the third line.
I don’t believe there will be a lot of uncertainty surrounding how well these guys can play together heading into the season. They come from teams with varying degrees of success, and I think playing on such a distinguished franchise like the Penguins means they will be willing to work their rear-ends off, especially those who haven’t tasted victory too often.
Defense Is Only Getting Stronger
The biggest signing the Penguins made this free agency period has to be defenseman Christian Ehrhoff.
Letting defenseman Brooks Orpik walk wasn’t a tough decision, but letting Matt Niskanen was. Niskanen had a career year last season and lead the league in the plus/minus category for most of the year.
Though it was a difficult decision, it was the right one. Picking up Ehrhoff made up for it.
The 32-year-old from Moers, Germany, will quarterback a defensive unit that includes a tremendous amount of youthful talent on the professional roster and in the system.
Olli Maatta, Simon Despres, and Derrick Pouliot highlight the up and coming defensemen. Maatta, who had an outstanding rookie year by netting nine goals and 20 assists in 78 games will miss part of his sophomore season after undergoing shoulder surgery in May.
Ehrhoff provides a sensational sense of the game that he will be able to pass on to the younger guys as they begin their journeys as NHL defensemen. Signing him was the smartest decision by the front office this entire offseason.
Restricted Free Agents Are Top Priority Now
The Penguins have six restricted free agents on their pro roster—Spaling, Sutter, Despres, Jayson Megna, Bobby Farnham and Philip Samuelsson. When you look at those first three names, it’s a no-brainer that re-signing them is a must.
Spaling, the afterthought of the Neal trade, is the only one of the three that has filed for arbitration. The 25-year-old had a decent regular season last year with the Preds, posting 13 goals and 19 assists. He is known as a very versatile two-way forward who specializes in penalty kills.
Sutter showed in the postseason why he should be given a nice contract extension. After racking up seven points (5G, 2A), he is starting to emerge as the player the front office has expected him to become ever since he was acquired from the Carolina Hurricanes in 2012 in exchange for Jordan Staal.
Despres, as I stated before, is one of the many young, budding blueliners who crucial to the future of this team's defense.
Rutherford said in an interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Dave Molinari last Thursday that the negotiating processes would begin soon.
Not re-signing any of the three will have a significant impact on the team's long term goals.