With this year’s major offseason tasks finally complete, it’s time to answer one important question: What’s next?
The biggest concern for teams now, especially the Pittsburgh Penguins, is to sign their restricted free agents to new contracts, but that doesn’t mean management can’t dabble into the stagnant free-agent pool anymore.
I’m not saying the Pens shouldn’t avoid any more trades for the rest of the offseason, it’s just that there are still valuable free agents left who would fit perfectly into the new system.
Sure, there isn’t a whole lot to choose from in terms of all-stars, but there are three players that should be capable of making an impact immediately.
Despite being on top of the league standings year after year, there is always room for improvement for this club. Let's take a look here at potential future Penguins, beginning with one future hall-of-fame goaltender.
Before free agency began, I was all about the Penguins gunning for legendary goaltender Martin Brodeur of the New Jersey Devils to join this squad. My reasoning was that Brodeur would provide priceless mentoring for the team’s franchise netminder, Marc-Andre Fleury.
Fleury had a decent year in 2013-14 posting a save percentage of .915 in both the regular season and postseason. He also won seven of 13 games for the black and gold in the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
It’s his past that captured the concern of fans and the coaching staff alike.
After “the Flower” backed the Penguins to their third Stanley Cup in 2009, he had absolutely tanked in the following four postseasons. Check out his stats in the box below:
Despite some good numbers last postseason, the 29-year-old let in some questionable goals against the Columbus Blue Jackets and New York Rangers. This should worry the front office, who recently just acquired five-year veteran goalie Thomas Greiss to serve as his backup.
It seems as if the Pens are looking for security in the form of experience to back Fleury, which was something Jeff Zatkoff could not provide, as he had only a single year of NHL action under his belt.
This brings us back to the first point. If the team was looking for more experience behind Fleury, then why not go after arguably the best netminder to ever play the game?
The three-time Cup winner and lifelong New Jersey Devil would provide a tremendous impact on Fleury, even if it were for a single year. His skills certainly have taken a shot, but his wisdom will live on for generations.
Greiss is still a great goaltender, who at 28, has a long career ahead of him. Give him one year of AHL action with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, and I think he could become some solid trade bait once Fleury is settled in.
Signing Brodeur to a one-year deal leaves room for the Pens to re-sign their restricted free agents as well.
It’s obvious the effect he will have on Fleury will be tremendous as it is necessary if general manager Jim Rutherford and the rest of the front office has any hope that he can return to his pre-Stanley Cup form.
Daniel Winnik or Lee Stempniak
Probably the two most shocking losses for the Penguins this offseason were Jussi Jokinen and James Neal, two-thirds of the team's second line. They were almost immediately replaced, however, with Patric Hornqvist and Steve Downie, who will provide support on the sides of Evgeni Malkin.
Now the only problem left is filling in the spaces at the bottom.
As Pascal Dupuis continues to get pushed passed his prime, he could very well be playing on the third line this season in place of Beau Bennett, who would take over on the first. Brandon Sutter, who is still waiting on a new contract as a restricted free agent, will take his usual place anchoring the third.
This leaves the other winger slot open, which can be filled with either Daniel Winnik or Lee Stempniak.
Stempniak was acquired by ex-GM Ray Shero at the trade deadline last season, which proved to be a solid grab. At 31, the former Calgary Flame knotted 12 goals and 22 assists between the two teams and played alongside Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz on the first forward line from time to time.
If the team decides to re-sign Stempniak to a new contract, he most likely will become a cheap bottom-six forward. That doesn’t make him invaluable, though. His knowledge of the game and ability to still contribute offensively is always welcome on any team.
If Stempniak isn’t in the Pens’ cards, then there’s another 30-point scorer still on the market.
29-year-old Daniel Winnik played the last two seasons on a very successful Anaheim Ducks team that some could say mirrors the talent the Penguins have. In So-Cal, he tallied only six goals but made up for it with great penalty killing. His 6’2”, 210-pound frame would add size to the Penguins lineup that could use more big bodies.
If the Pens want to sign their three restricted free agents (Sutter, Simon Despres and Nick Spaling), then either Winnik or Stempniak will have to come at a bargain. Each of these three forwards listed above are all-necessary to the Pens’ future success so expect their contracts to come before anybody new comes aboard.
Each area of the ice is slowly growing stronger and stronger, and with the possibilities of these new guys wearing a Pens sweater next year, you can expect championship-caliber performance year round from even the darkest depths of this club.
All statistics courtesy of NHL.com.