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Pens Free Agency Preview 2023

Operation: secure new depth and youth begins.


The Penguins are heading into this free agency with a once-in-a-decade opportunity to seize on unique market conditions that have produced a bountiful free agent class. Teams are allowing unprecedented numbers of quality young players to walk this year due to the lack of a significant rise in the NHL's salary cap in order to allocate their resources toward more crucial roster-top needs.


These unusual cuts wouldn't occur in any other season and are just like hitting the lottery for the Pittsburgh Penguins. It's resulted in an abnormally strong market in both depth players and most crucially young players that usually don't get anywhere near unrestricted free agency.


The Pens have their stars: the top six is set and still one of the best in the league. Reilly Smith has just joined by trade with Las Vegas making the first two lines as follows below. Every single player in the Penguins' top six now has a Stanley Cup ring aside from Rickard Rakell.

Pittsburgh Penguins lines
Lines via DailyFaceoff.com

The defense is locked down with the stability of Kris Letang and Marcus Pettersson as anchors. The team needs an injection of young players behind these stars and they have plenty to choose from in this free agent crop.


Our picks of some of the best targets for the Penguins' needs are below.


As usual, our WAR analytics cards are via JFreshHockey and are indispensable this time of year. We encourage you to become a JFresh patron for full access to his work. Our contract projection data comes from AFPAnalytics.


FORWARDS


Team Needs: A legitimate number three center for their enduring "three C" system behind Sid and Geno. More middle depth to hopefully replace Jeff Carter and Mikael Granlund. And youth, lots of youth, to supplement the soon-to-be 36-year-old and 37-year-old legs on Crosby and Malkin.


Number Three Center


1. Pius Suter

AFP Projected contract: 2 years at $1,853,271 per year.

My number option for this space because that's exactly what he gives you: options. Suter isn't the biggest name but he could be the perfect #3 centerman on the market for the Pens and should be priced just right. He can handle this role but also leaves you enough money on the table to go get an upgrade if you want to during the season or just spend around him right now. He can also shift to left wing if you add another center later on. And he brings the overall roster age down in the process as he's still just 27 years old.

2. J.T. Compher

AFP Projected contract: 5 years at $5,311,643 per year.

Compher is another younger center that would fit this role but is expected to be in much higher demand than Suter from having a Stanley Cup with Colorado on his resume. Although the late entry of Matt Duchene to the market could knock down his asking price and bring him more into the Penguins' range. Still, I listed Compher second because he'll eat a lot of cap and term which isn't ideal. He'll also be asked to play a third-line role here and other teams can offer him a bigger spotlight. That's a major drawback for the Pens in trying to land 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-year-old he's precisely the youth needed for this Pens roster and the exact archetype third line center they typically like: defense-minded and responsible both ways. McLeod's also a phenomenal skater which would complement the strengths of the top two centers allowing the Pens to stock up on wingers who can plug and play with any "C" in the top nine. This is a signing that could be a long-term solution to the Penguins' problems in the bottom six center picture given his age too. It offers the kind of 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 who was passed on by New Jersey out of necessity from their crowded young roster, Boqvist isn't the traditional Pens' third line center as he excels more in an offensive-based game. But the team could easily look to shift their defensive, checking line to the fourth line and add some speed behind the top six instead which would be ideal for Boqvist. At age 24 he brings the youth they need too.


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 with St. Louis already on his resume and has long been thought of as a great fit for Pittsburgh. He brings leadership to the table which would fit in 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 core. He also is coming directly from playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs after being acquired by their former GM, new Penguins' President Kyle Dubas. He's the one 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 get in the spring. But he will come with a premium $5 million dollar plus a year price tag.


Honorable mention: Morgan Geekie. Although he's a riskier bet to take on #3 C minutes since he's yet to spend a significant amount of time playing on that level in his career, it might be wise for the youth-starved Pens to bet on the 25-year-old a little. 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 anyways with the Penguins' declining to re-sign previous fourth line centerman Ryan Poehling.


DEFENSE


Team Needs: Quality bottom four depth to enable offloading Jeff Petry and Jan Rutta. And to supplement the ranks as the team pursues a top pair defenseman in trade, during which they may have to sacrifice the likes of P.O. Joseph or Ty Smith in the return. And adding more interchangeable, dual-side D. As the Penguins have been pigeon-holed by side-specific players that don't easily mix when an injury arises 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, just 26 years old, and someone who can play either side. His contract should be affordable for what he brings. He's also worth overpaying a little in the expectation he can flourish on a much better team than Chicago with an increased role out of the shadow of brother Seth. Caleb has put up 4-5 goals and at least 10 assists each year in the last two seasons so there are good numbers there to begin with. He's a physical player and can provide help in moving the puck forward. There's a lot of untapped talent here just looking for the right team to best highlight it.


2. Ethan Bear (RD)

AFP Projected contract: 2 years at $2,614,022 per year.

If recent history has told us anything it's that you want a player that Jim Rutherford has rejected (Calen Addison, Oskar Sundqvist, Patric Hornqvist, Justin Schultz, Ian Cole, Olli Maatta all went on to continued success elsewhere): Enter Ethan Bear. Bear wasn't qualified by Rutherford's Canucks. He was an attractive player to begin with but that aspect means he deserves additional attention as Rutherford and deputy Patrik Allvin's pro player evaluation when deciding when to move on seems very flawed. The Penguins need to seize on this fault that they are familiar with in their former General Manager. Adding the 26-year-old RHD 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. Pittsburgh can be that place.


3. Travis Dermott (LD, RD)

AFP Projected contract: 1 year at $775,000 per year.

Another one of Rutherford's rejects, 26-year-old Travis Dermott is a sturdy defender with some offensive ability who also just happened to be one of Kyle Dubas's Maple Leafs last year. He's hit some difficulties in recent seasons but at his age and for a contract under a million he's a player you forecast 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. Those are 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 do some heavy lifting in the bottom four. He also has a knack for assists as an extra element to his game. Although he's on the older end of the spectrum coming into this year at age 31 that's still younger than Penguins defenders Jan Rutta, Jeff Petry, or Chad Ruhwedel. Mayfield's expected to be in heavy demand though as a reliable stay-at-home defender that will push his salary up towards $3.8 million per year which might 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 being tendered a qualifying offer from their tight cap issues. It's once again another big opportunity to seize on a player who normally would not be on the market. Reilly a solid depth piece who's still 29. He's been a handy member of the Bruins for several seasons. Reilly is a perfect sideman as he excels at passing and hit a career high of an impressive 27 assists in 2020-21. He also hails from Sidney Crosby's alma mater of Shattuck St. Mary's to boot.


Honorable Mention: Shayne Gostibehere (LD/RD) & Carson Soucy (LD/RD).

Gostisbehere AFP Projected contract: 4 years at $4,794,689.

Soucy AFP Projected contract: 3 years at $2,495,722.


GOALTENDING


Team Needs: All of it. The Penguins could use a number one, two, and reliable third goalie. As of late Friday, they were still in talks with Tristan Jarry to remain so we'll count that need as covered. But he needs true reinforcements for a change to make him an adequate starter. Casey DeSmith should be offloaded by trade for a more reliable, true 1B. And third goalie Dustin Tokarski is aging out of prime age and can be replaced with a player with higher upside on this market.


1. Laurent Brossoit

AFP Projected contract: 1 year at $1,483,062 per year.

Brossaint is my primary free agent target in net for the Penguins. He's capable of starting or can provide 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's in junior hockey. They were quite successful as a unit too, capturing the WHL Championship together playing for the Edmonton Oil Kings. Jarry is in need of a net partner once again and Brossaint is fresh off of 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's been looking shakey in net for several seasons when it counts the most.


Notable Mention: Keep an eye on some young 'tender options on the market for a number three for the Penguins in place of 33-year-old Dustin Tokarski in the quest to go younger. Joey Daccord (26), Erik Kallgren (26), Dylan Ferguson (24), Jonas Johansson (28), or Collin Delia (29) might be good picks for a reliable third goalie who can take NHL minutes when needed, help out in the farm system but also still bring some surprise upside that has yet to be tapped.


Be sure to join us on Twitter @PensReport all day starting at 12 PM (ET) for annual live free agency signing coverage!

 

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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.


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