NHL Free Agents 2020: Latest Buzz on Justin Schultz, Penguins, Hurricanes

Jake RillSenior Analyst IIIApril 30, 2020

Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Justin Schultz (4) skates with the puck during the second period of an NHL hockey game against the Washington Capitals, Sunday, Feb. 23, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
Nick Wass/Associated Press

Before the NHL season was suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Pittsburgh Penguins appeared to be on their way to making the playoffs for the 14th consecutive season. And with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin still as their core players, they're likely to remain postseason contenders in the near future.

However, whether the Penguins win the Stanley Cup—like they did in consecutive years in 2016 and 2017—or lose in the first round, like last season, can depend on the moves the team makes in the offseason. Crosby and Malkin are strong players, but it takes a quality supporting cast to build a championship team.

This offseason, Pittsburgh will have some key decisions to make regarding its players who are set to become free agents. It's possible the league's salary cap won't go up because of the current suspension, and if that's the case, then the Penguins and other teams may need to clear some financial obligations.

Here's some of the latest buzz regarding the upcoming offseason, which includes some of the Penguins' impending free agents.


Will Schultz's time in Pittsburgh come to an end?

Justin Schultz was traded from the Oilers to the Penguins midway through the 2015-16 season, and he had a career year in his first full campaign in Pittsburgh. Over 78 games, he tallied 51 points (12 goals and 39 assists) before helping the Penguins win their second straight Stanley Cup.

In the last three seasons, Schultz has made less of an impact. After playing only 29 games in the 2018-19 campaign, he had only 12 points (three goals and nine assists) in 46 games this season while recording a plus/minus of minus-13, his worst since coming to Pittsburgh. He also missed time because of injuries, which sidelined him for two separate stints.

This may end up being Schultz's final season in Pittsburgh. Seth Rorabaugh of Pittsburgh Tribune-Review recently wrote that the 29-year-old defenseman's "forgettable 2019-20 campaign likely will bring his otherwise successful tenure with the Penguins to an end." John Marino (26 points in 56 games) had a strong rookie season for Pittsburgh, which could make it even easier to cut ties with Schultz.

However, Schultz "won't lack suitors" on the free-agent market despite having a tough season, according to Rorabaugh, as he's a right-handed defenseman who has had past success. Perhaps a fresh start with a new team will help get Schultz back on the right track.


Who else will leave Penguins this offseason?

Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

Schultz isn't the only Pittsburgh player set to become an unrestricted free agent this offseason. And he may not be the only one who is likely not to return for the 2020-21 season.

Forty-year-old center Patrick Marleau is set to hit free agency, although Rorabaugh recently speculated that Marleau could be nearing the end of his NHL career. After spending his first 19 seasons with the Sharks, he returned to San Jose, where he lives, at the start of this season following a two-year stint with the Maple Leafs. He was traded to the Penguins on Feb. 24 and had a goal and an assist in eight games with them.

Rorabaugh wrote that he believes "it's doubtful he will return to the Penguins under any circumstances."

It would be more likely for Pittsburgh to bring back Conor Sheary, who is also set to become an unrestricted free agent. The 27-year-old left winger had a goal and three assists in eight games after getting traded from the Sabres back to the Penguins, who he played for from 2015-18 to begin his NHL career. Rorabaugh noted that "retaining Sheary might be a prudent strategy, assuming the price is right."


Hurricanes will have decisions to make on defense

Karl B DeBlaker/Associated Press

Only four defensemen on the Hurricanes' roster have a contract for next season. Haydn Fleury is set to become a restricted free agent, while Trevor van Riemsdyk, Joel Edmundson and Sami Vatanen are all going to be unrestricted free agents.

Of the three defensemen who will be unrestricted free agents, The Athletic's Sara Civian wrote that she believes Van Riemsdyk is the most likely to be back with Carolina, "so long as he hovers around his $2.3 million cap hit." In three seasons for the Hurricanes, Van Riemsdyk has been a consistent presence on the ice, playing 206 games over that span.

Civian is less certain about a potential return for Edmundson and Vatanen, who has yet to play a game for the Hurricanes as he was injured when he was traded from the Devils on Feb. 24.

However, Civian noted that it's "a pretty sure bet" that Fleury will return to Carolina, considering he had a strong season and should come at an affordable price. The 23-year-old should be an integral part of the Hurricanes defense next season, especially if they lose other defenders in free agency.