The Pittsburgh Penguins once again find themselves on the golf course early. What was chalked up to be a great postseason run with several similarities between this year’s team and the one that won the Stanley Cup in 2017 has unfortunately crashed and burned far sooner than expected. The Penguins were never a team to shy away from making big changes in the offseason — new management in Brian Burke and Ron Hextall is much less likely to produce major turnover than ex-general manager Jim Rutherford was.
However, in a postseason that went so terribly wrong for a Penguins team with such high hopes, as well as an expansion draft on the horizon, change to some degree is inevitable. This article will highlight my personal “wish-list” of realistic additions for the Penguins this offseason to return to being Stanley Cup contenders in 2022.
While a series is never set upon a singular player’s shoulders, especially in hockey, most of the hockey world is in agreement that the Penguins were held down by a horrific six-game stint by Tristan Jarry against the New York Islanders this postseason. The Penguins held a 2.28 expected goals for per 60 (xGF/60) and a 1.97 expected goals against per 60 (xGA/60), compared to the Islanders’ 1.97 and 2.28, respectively. These advanced stats indicate the series was close, but Pittsburgh had the edge over the Isles.
Unfortunately, a combination of a lack of consistency during the regular season as well as inexperience in a playoff setting got to Jarry, inevitably sparking the Penguins’ loss in six games to the Islanders. Jarry recorded a .888 save percentage (SV%) and a minus-6.72 goals saved above expected (GSAx), which ranked 18th and 21st respectively out of the 21 goalies who have made an appearance in the postseason. While Jarry’s performance was difficult to watch, I still feel he can be a solid member of a Penguins’ tandem in the future.
One goalie I feel can handle the workload well with Jarry would be Elvis Merzlikins. As I mentioned in my previous article, Merzlikins is coming off of a strong regular season performance, where he recorded a .918 SV% and a minus-2.43 GSAx with the Columbus Blue Jackets. The Blue Jackets have been noted to likely not be returning with both Merzlikins and teammate Joonas Korpisalo come the fall, which provides the Penguins with a solid opportunity to acquire him.
Another goalie that could help the Penguins find their 1A-1B tandem for 2021-22 is Frederik Andersen. Andersen has had a difficult couple of seasons with the Toronto Maple Leafs recently, putting him at a low value for the Penguins to take a chance on. He becomes an unrestricted free agent when free agency kicks in on July 28, so the Penguins wouldn’t be forced to give up any current assets or picks for him.
Defensive Scoring Depth
The Penguins’ blue line looked its best this season since their Stanley Cup run in 2017, with players such as Cody Ceci and Mike Matheson coming into the fold this previous offseason. However, Ceci’s play this season was an outlier compared to years past, likely leaving him to depart from Pittsburgh in the offseason. Luckily, there are some quality defensemen on the trade block for other teams that provide the team with an opportunity to bolster their defensive unit.
One target I have in mind for the Penguins’ blue line is Mike Reilly. Reilly held down an inexperienced Ottawa Senators blue line while maintaining fully positive metrics through the majority of the season, where he was then traded to the Boston Bruins for their Stanley Cup run. He recorded 27 points in 55 games this season, as well as four points in 11 postseason games with the Bruins. I feel he would be a relatively cost-friendly option for the Penguins to add to their blue line, who could potentially complement Matheson in a second-pair role.
Another defenseman I feel would perform well for the Penguins next season would be Vince Dunn. I mentioned Dunn in my last article, and still feel he would be a terrific addition. He’s coming off a 20-point campaign in 43 games with the St. Louis Blues, who were recently bounced by the Colorado Avalanche in four games in the first round. Blues management has had their phones available for calls on Dunn since rumors started before the trade deadline, so attempting to acquire him now when his team may look to make changes after an abysmal postseason performance would provide for a potentially cheap market value for the Penguins.
While extra defensive depth certainly never hurts a team, the Penguins have the unique ability to lose a defenseman or two this offseason and still be strong depth-wise. This was proven this season when the injury bug attacked the back end of the team, and the defensive corps held strong and weathered the difficult portion of the regular season until the starters were healthy. Players like Chad Ruhwedel, Juuso Riikola, and Pierre-Olivier Joseph could all step into full-time roles with the Penguins and wouldn’t skip a beat, so the Penguins are in a great position to make adjustments on the back end.
Gritty Offensive Skill
The Penguins’ current forward corps is among one of the best in the league. Highlighted by generational talents in Sidney Crosby, Jake Guentzel, and Evgeni Malkin, the Pens have rarely found themselves in a poor position offensively in the past 15 years. However, one thing that was noticeable in the series with the Islanders was their inability to dominate the physical game. While the fourth line of each team grinded one another down to the bone, the Islanders’ top-line players were simply more physically dominant in the corners and along the boards.
Forwards like Guentzel and Jared McCann were dominated physically this series by the shutdown defensive defensemen of the Islanders, primarily Ryan Pulock and Adam Pelech. Little net-front dominance and presence inevitably led to few rebound chances, which is where the Penguins rarely find their success offensively to begin with. In a league that grows faster and more skilled with every entry draft, the Penguins find themselves needing some old-school presence to help dominate the “dirty” areas of the game.
One name that stands out to me, if the Penguins can arrange the cap for him, is Blake Coleman. Coleman, a pending unrestricted free agent, has spent the past one and a half seasons with the Tampa Bay Lightning, recording 32 points in 64 games in his combined regular season time with the Lightning. Along with his ability to find the back of the net and create opportunities, he is well-known for his grinding style of play, something the Penguins have been missing in their middle six since the departure of Patric Hornqvist. I feel he would be a terrific addition for the right price, and would fit in beautifully with Jeff Carter and McCann.
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Another name that would be an amazing acquisition, while more unrealistic due to his league-wide interest, is Zach Hyman. He is coming off yet another 30-plus point season, recording 33 points in 43 games, missing a good chunk of the season due to a knee injury. While he has established himself as a perennial 30-40 point player, what makes him so valuable to the Maple Leafs is his ability to serve as a team’s “handy-man,” meaning he can play virtually anywhere in the lineup and find success. His grit and speed would be a fantastic addition to the Penguins’ middle six to round out their top nine, who desperately need a bit of aggressiveness in their game.
While the Penguins found an early exit in yet another postseason, this one feels different. In the past years, the team was simply not good enough to perform with the team they were matched up against. While it hurts more in the moment to lose to an inferior team in the playoffs, the Penguins are left this postseason with more patchwork to do than crazy adjustments or additions. The team finally feels like they are a piece or two away from Lord Stanley’s fabled Cup once again, and will look to make these additions to squeeze as much glory out of 87, 58, and 71 as they can.
Born and raised in Raleigh, NC. Played and coached hockey since 2008. Amateur Sports Writer of 2 years. Attending North Carolina State University. Writer for the Pittsburgh Penguins.