Operation: secure new depth and youth begins.
The Penguins enter this free agency with a rare opportunity to capitalize on unique market conditions that have produced a bountiful free-agent class. Teams, constrained by the NHL's stagnant salary cap, are allowing an unprecedented number of quality young players to become free agents, in order to reallocate their resources to address more critical roster needs.
These atypical roster cuts, a consequence of the current circumstances, represent a once-in-a-decade occurrence for the Pittsburgh Penguins. The result is an unusually robust market featuring both valuable depth players and, most crucially for Pittsburgh, young talents who typically wouldn't reach unrestricted free agency.
The Penguins already have their stars; their top six remains intact and ranks among the league's best. The recent addition of Reilly Smith through a trade with Las Vegas further solidifies the first two lines, as seen in the image below. Most notably, every player in the Penguins' top six, except Rickard Rakell, already possesses a Stanley Cup ring.
The defense is secure with the stability provided by Kris Letang and Marcus Pettersson as anchors. The team requires an infusion of young players behind all these stars, and there is a wealth of options available in this free-agent pool.
Below, we present our picks for some of the best targets to address the Penguins' needs.
As always, our WAR (wins above replacement) analytics cards are sourced from JFreshHockey and are invaluable during this time of the year to quickly visualize player performance by play components. We recommend becoming a JFresh patron for complete access to his work. Our contract projection data is sourced from AFPAnalytics.
Team Needs: A legitimate number three center is required for their enduring "three C" center system behind Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Additional middle-depth players are needed to potentially replace Jeff Carter and Mikael Granlund. Moreover, an influx of youth and lots of it is essential to support the soon-to-be 36-year-old and 37-year-old legs of Crosby and Malkin.
1. Pius Suter
AFP Projected contract: 2 years at $1,853,271 per year.
My top choice for this position, as he precisely provides what's needed: options. Suter may not be the most prominent name, but he could serve as the ideal #3 centerman on the market for the Pens and should be priced just right. He can fulfill this role while leaving ample financial flexibility to pursue an upgrade at his position later in the season or spend the money around him currently. Additionally, he can transition to the left wing if you decide to add another center down the line. Most importantly he contributes to reducing the overall roster age, given that he's only 27 years old.
2. J.T. Compher
AFP Projected contract: 5 years at $5,311,643 per year.
Compher is another young center who could fill this role, but he is anticipated to have much higher demand than Suter from boasting a Stanley Cup with Colorado on his resume. The late entry of Matt Duchene into the market could potentially lower Compher's asking price and make him more within the Penguins' range. Still, I ranked Compher second because he would command a significant amount of cap space and term no matter what, which is not ideal. He also would be relegated to playing a third-line role here, and other teams can offer him a more prominent spotlight. This poses a major drawback for the Pens in their pursuit of landing him.
3. Michael McLeod
AFP Projected contract: 3 years at $1,937,503 per year.
The former 12th overall pick was surprisingly not qualified by a cap-strapped New Jersey. At 25 years old, he precisely provides the youth needed for this Penguins roster and fits the exact archetype of the third-line center they typically favor: defense-minded and responsible both ways on the ice. McLeod is also a phenomenal skater, which complements the strengths of the top two centers and would allow the Pens to stock up on wingers who can plug and play with any centerman in the top nine. This signing could be a long-term solution to the Penguins' problems in the bottom-six center position given his age too. He’d offer the stable center depth that's an ideal bridge between the Pens' current era and their future.
5. Jesper Boqvist
AFP Projected contract: 2 years at $1,520,042 per year.
Another young Devil whose RFA rights were passed on by New Jersey out of necessity due to their crowded young roster, Boqvist isn't the traditional Pens' third-line center, as he excels more in an offensive-based game. However, the team could easily consider shifting their defensive, checking line to the fourth line and adding some speed behind the top six instead, which would be an ideal scheme for Boqvist. At the age of 24, he brings the youth they need as well.
5. Ryan O'Reilly
AFP Projected contract: 3 years at $5,482,238 per year.
He doesn't fit the edict of youth, but O'Reilly is a perfect #3 center candidate. He's a proven winner with a Stanley Cup from St. Louis already on his resume and has long been considered a potential great fit for Pittsburgh. He brings leadership to the table, which would blend well with Crosby, Malkin, and Letang. "ROR" is slightly older than the ideal target range of under 30, at 32, but he's still a few years younger than the Penguins’ core. He is also coming directly from playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs after being acquired by their former GM and new Pens' President Kyle Dubas, who is making the decisions in this free agency. The idea of Dubas wanting an O'Reilly reunion isn't far-fetched, as he was Toronto's prized acquisition in the spring. However, he will come with a premium $5 million-plus per year price tag which is a steep price to pay for a depth centerman.
Honorable mention: Morgan Geekie. Although he's a riskier bet to take on #3 center minutes since he has yet to spend a significant amount of time playing at that level in his career, it might be wise for the youth-starved Pens to bet on the 25-year-old. They could take the rare chance of getting this player at this age and let him have a crack at stepping up into a third-line role. His contract projection is two years at $1,812,195 per year, so it's a low-risk gamble, and he'll still make a solid fourth liner if he fails. That's a need now anyway with the Penguins declining to re-sign their previous fourth-line centerman Ryan Poehling.
Team Needs: Quality bottom-four depth is required to facilitate the offloading of Jeff Petry and Jan Rutta. Additionally, the team needs to bolster its ranks as they pursue a top-pair defenseman in a trade, during which they may have to part ways with players like P.O. Joseph or Ty Smith in return. The team also requires more interchangeable, dual-side defensemen, as the Penguins have been limited by side-specific players who don't easily mix into the lines when injuries arise in recent years.
1. Caleb Jones (LD/RD)
AFP Projected contract: 2 years at $2,522,758 per year.
Jones is our top target as a solid defender, only 26 years old, and capable of playing on either side. His contract should be affordable for what he brings to the table. He’s also worth overpaying a little, given the expectation that he can flourish on a much better team than Chicago, with an increased role away from the shadow of his brother Seth. Caleb has consistently posted 4-5 goals and at least 10 assists each year in the last two seasons, indicating solid numbers are there to begin with. He's a physical player and can contribute to moving the puck forward. There's a wealth of untapped talent here just waiting for the right team to bring it to the forefront.
2. Ethan Bear (RD)
AFP Projected contract: 2 years at $2,614,022 per year.
If recent history has taught us anything, it's that you want a player whom former Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford has rejected (Calen Addison, Oskar Sundqvist, Patric Hornqvist, Justin Schultz, Ian Cole, Olli Maatta all went on to find continued success elsewhere). Enter Ethan Bear. Bear wasn't qualified by Rutherford's Canucks. He was already an attractive player, but that aspect means he deserves additional attention, as Rutherford and deputy Patrik Allvin's pro player evaluation when deciding when to move on has been questioned as very flawed. The Penguins need to seize on this fault that they are familiar with from experiencing it with Rutherford firsthand. Adding the 26-year-old right-handed defenseman Bear is an instant win in my book. He's affordable and capable on both sides of the puck. He simply hasn't found the right home yet, and Pittsburgh can be that place.
3. Travis Dermott (LD, RD)
AFP Projected contract: 1 year at $775,000 per year.
Another of Rutherford's rejects, 26-year-old Travis Dermott is a sturdy defender with some offensive ability who also happened to be one of Kyle Dubas's Maple Leafs last year. He has faced some difficulties in recent seasons, but given his age and a contract under a million, he's a player forecasted to rebound. If he does, he'll pay off decently; his career-high production with Toronto in 2018-19 was four goals and 13 assists—numbers the Pens would love to reproduce.
4. Scott Mayfield (RD)
AFP Projected contract: 3 years at $3,751, 822 per year.
Mayfield is familiar to Pens fans as a division rival with the Islanders. He's a defensive defenseman who can handle heavy lifting in the bottom four. He also has a knack for assists, adding an extra element to his game. Although he's on the older end of the spectrum entering this year at age 31, he's still younger than Penguins defenders Jan Rutta, Jeff Petry, or Chad Ruhwedel. Mayfield is expected to be in heavy demand as a reliable stay-at-home defender, which might push his salary up toward $3.8 million per year—a figure that could be too rich for the Pens in his mid-pairing role.
5. Mike Reilly (LD)
AFP Projected contract: 2 years at $1,321,577 per year.
Boston's Mike Reilly is a late entry to free agency after not receiving a qualifying offer due to their tight cap issues. It's yet another significant opportunity to acquire a player who wouldn't typically be on the market. Reilly is a solid depth piece at the age of 29 and has been a valuable member of the Bruins for several seasons. Excelling at passing, he hit a career-high with an impressive 27 assists in 2020-21 making him a perfect side piece to the main stars. He also hails from Sidney Crosby's alma mater of Shattuck St. Mary's to boot.
Team Needs: Everything. The Penguins could use a number one, two, and a dependable third goalie. As of late Friday, they were still in talks with Tristan Jarry to remain, so we'll consider that need covered. However, he needs significant reinforcements to transform into an adequate starter. Casey DeSmith should be traded for a more reliable, true “1B” goaltender. Third goalie, Dustin Tokarski, is aging out of prime performance years and can be replaced with a younger player who has higher upside in this market.
1. Laurent Brossoit
AFP Projected contract: 1 year at $1,483,062 per year.
Brossoit is my primary free-agent target in net for the Penguins. He is capable of starting or providing some of the best supporting duties in the league. Adding him would instantly stabilize the goalie situation. He was once a tandem partner of Tristan Jarry in junior hockey, and they were quite successful as a unit, capturing the WHL Championship together with the Edmonton Oil Kings. Jarry needs a net partner once again, and Brossoit is fresh off winning the Stanley Cup with the Vegas Golden Knights. He should be just as affordable as Casey DeSmith, allowing the Pens to move on from the current number two, who has been looking shaky in net for several seasons when it counts the most.
Notable Mention: Keep an eye on some young goaltender options on the market for a number three for the Penguins in place of 33-year-old Dustin Tokarski in the quest to rejuvenate the team with youth. Joey Daccord (26), Erik Kallgren (26), Dylan Ferguson (24), Jonas Johansson (28), or Collin Delia (29) would be good picks for a reliable third goalie who can take NHL minutes when needed, help out in the farm system, and also bring some surprise upside that has yet to be tapped completely. All of these players should command an affordable salary too.
The overarching theme of prioritizing youth is served well in these selections, with 14 out of the 17 names listed being under the age of 30, and nine of them aged 26 or younger. The Penguins can also strategically pursue players who are available only due to cap constraints or despite facing challenges elsewhere, that may find success in Pittsburgh. This approach aligns with the team's need to tap into this unusually abundant talent market and construct a roster that complements its established stars while serving as a bridge to the future. It sets the stage for an exceptionally exciting free agency, and we'll be monitoring every step of the way.
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Owen Robinson is the founder, site editor, and lead writer for Pens Report. A resident of the North Hills he’s covered the Penguins as a reporter and photographer for various outlets since 2011, including through two Stanley Cup seasons. In his spare time, he enjoys classic film, concerts, photography, Mac Miller, and hanging out with a good cat. You can follow him on Twitter @itsowenrobinson.