New Penguins GM Jim Rutherford has a lot of decisions on his plate going forward. Not only does he need to name a new coach, but the Penguins have an unusually large crop of candidates up for free agency.
The first order of business for Rutherford should be to re-sign Matt Niskanen. Though the Penguins are a team working with little cap space, Niskanen is coming off a career year and has been near-invaluable on the Penguins back end and in special teams, with a +/- of +33, placing him at sixth in the league. Niskanen should command around $3.5 million, leaving the Penguins with roughly $4 million in cap space to work with.
A little of that cap space should go to re-signing Jussi Jokinen, who has proven a versatile player on the second or third lines as well as a quality goal scorer. Though previously some of his salary was being paid by Carolina, where he had not fit in, on Pittsburgh he’s transformed into a 20-goal scorer and integral part of the team who certainly warrants a re-signing.
Joe Vitale is another strong contender for retention, and a valuable fourth-line center with strong hands, good face-off skills, and grit to spare.
And from their young crop of players, the Penguins should re-sign three of them: Brian Gibbons, Jayson Megna, and Simon Despres. Gibbons has incredible speed, is a skilled penalty killer, and more than proved his worth during the 2014 playoffs, showing an ability to play and make a difference on even top lines. Forward Jayson Megna has displayed similar speed, and provides much-needed depth for the Penguins fourth line. And finally, though he was rarely given much chance in the Bylsma era, Simon Despres is probably the most skilled young defenseman besides Olli Maatta that the Penguins have in their defense-heavy arsenal. He has made mistakes at key moments, but he has also grown tremendously in the past year and been a star for the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins that deserves a bigger, better chance at a spot in the NHL.
And finally, Brandon Sutter should be kept – for now. Sutter proved he was more than capable of turning on the goal scoring in the playoffs, but only when he has skilled and steady wingers. Unless Sutter can be used as a trade piece, he’s a capable third line center and should be kept, but only if he’ll be given the linemates he deserves.
There are some players who are easy decisions to let go. Goc, Pyatt, Conner, Glass, and Kobasew served largely without distinction, some of them mostly in the AHL. They can hopefully be replaced with similarly cheap options who are more effective in their roles.
On the blue line, the most notable player who most likely will be let go, and should be, is Brooks Orpik. Orpik is a rugged, stay-at-home defensman, but as he gets older his skills have notably declined, and the Penguins have a surplus of defensemen who can do Orpik’s job just as well and for less. Engelland should also be allowed to walk from the Penguins blue line. Though he is versatile and could be used as both a defenseman and a forward, he performs neither role particularly well.
Both Vokun and Stempniak would be nice additions to the team, but both come at too high a price. Zatkoff has more than earned his spot as a backup goaltender, and commands far less than Vokun. Sempniak is a nice addition to the Pens third line, but he currently commands $2.75 million – far too much for the cash-strapped Penguins. Unless he’s willing to take a significant pay cut to stay, he most likely will be gone.
Two players, though they are not at the ends of their contracts, should be gotten rid of – Craig Adams and Rob Scuderi. Craig Adams is a cheap player, but he’s a player who was used far too much by Bylsma and was not particularly good at his job, scoring only 5 goals despite an 82-game season, with a +/- of -16. Scuderi also commands far too much for an aging defenseman who is not all that effective. The $2.5 million he makes is sorely needed on the front end of the Penguins roster, not the back.
If Rutherford follows this model (including trading Scuderi), Rutherford will have roughly $7 million with which to acquire one or two top six forwards, as well as a couple of cheap but effective fourth liners that will hopefully lead the Penguins to another Stanley Cup.