The Pittsburgh Penguins are headed into the offseason with a new general manager for the first time since the summer of 2014 when Jim Rutherford was hired.
Despite worries from the fanbase that current general manager Ron Hextall and president of hockey ops Brian Burke would look to add size and toughness by way of a replacement-level goon before the NHL’s trade deadline in April, the lone transaction that came of it was the acquisition of Jeff Carter, who scored 13 goals in 20 games.
Personally, my worries have shifted from the front office’s desire for more grit to their ability to evaluate talent, both in-house and out.
Here are the 10 skaters and lone goaltender that the Penguins will protect in the expansion draft:
Just before the expansion draft trade freeze this past weekend, Hextall shipped forward Jared McCann to Toronto in exchange for prospect Filip Hallander (previously traded from PIT to TOR in Kapanen deal) and a 7th-round draft choice in 2023.
Before analyzing the return for McCann, who should have been a slam-dunk to protect, let’s consider that he; just turned 25-years old, can play center or wing, led the Penguins in primary assists and primary points per hour in 2021, is extremely effective in his own zone, and only costs $2.94 million against the salary cap next season.
With the Penguins trying to maximize their chances to hoist a Stanley Cup in the immediate future, dealing McCann makes absolutely zero sense, especially considering it will be impossible to replace the value he provides at both ends of the ice at such a low cap-hit on the open market.
If the haul for McCann had immediately bolstered the Penguins’ lineup elsewhere, I could attempt to rationalize the deal, but it didn’t.
To my surprise, the 20-year old Hallander has a pretty decent shot at becoming an NHLer, per Patrick Bacon‘s NHLe model, though the likelihood of him becoming a star is much lower.
While replenishing some talent in the barren prospect pool is nice, the reality is that Hallander will likely never have a season that even sniffs the season McCann just had.
Hallander might even be given an opportunity to make the big club as early as the start of next season, but pivoting to him from McCann is an obvious downgrade.
What’s more alarming is the fact that the front office values Teddy Blueger over McCann. Blueger is a great defensive center that especially thrives on the penalty kill, but has limited offensive upside and is nearly two years older than McCann.
With Evgeni Malkin expected to miss a chunk of time at the start of next season, the Penguins now have two gaping holes in the middle of their lineup and will likely have a third come Wednesday night.
Below are the four players I believe to have the highest likelihood of being selected by Seattle:
Brandon Tanev is; a maniac on skates, incredibly fast, above average defensively, solid on the penalty kill.
Brandon Tanev is not; offensively gifted, a player that can slot in on the top-two lines.
Everybody loves Tanev for his memeable personality and his anarchic on-ice play. That said, his performance hasn’t been enough to justify his $3.5 million cap hit, regardless of the intangibles he brings to the table (which I believe do show up in ways we can quantify).
Tanev turns 30 years old later this year and has another four seasons left on his deal. Many Pens fans are dubbing Tanev as the obvious choice for Seattle. Though I believe it to be a possibility, I have a hard time seeing them take on multiple years of bad money for a fourth-liner when their biggest asset coming into the league is their cap space.
Tanev is a nice piece to have on the fourth line, even if he is overpaid, but I expect him to be suiting up in black and gold come October.
Marcus Pettersson has become one of the more polarizing individuals among Penguins fans over the past year.
He isn’t flashy, doesn’t really stand out, and needs to work on the amount of penalties he takes, but he also produces above-average results at both ends of the ice and is the one left-handed defenseman in the organization we know plays well with John Marino.
Many claim that Pettersson’s $4.02 million cap hit is a steep overpayment, but that’s just about right for a d-man producing top-four results.
I don’t see losing Pettersson as a fatal blow, as P.O. Joseph should be ready to make the jump to the NHL and they currently don’t have a spot for him. That said, I have doubts that Joseph would have as much of a two-way impact, or that he’d be a stylistic fit next to Marino.
As for Seattle, they will have a ton of solid options to choose from on defense and I suspect they will be more interested in one of the Penguins’ forwards.
My money is on Zach Aston-Reese to be selected by Seattle.
Seattle supposedly has one of the most forward-thinking front offices in the league and it wouldn’t surprise me to see them jump on Aston-Reese’s incredible defensive impacts.
Though he appears to be nothing more than a bottom of the lineup plug if you’ve only briefly watched him, Aston-Reese has produced the best defensive results of any player over the past two seasons. In fact, Aston-Reese has been the main driver of success on the Penguins’ fourth-line, not Blueger or Tanev.
Since the start of the 2019-20 season, the trio has spent 562 minutes together at 5v5. In that time, the Penguins outscored the opposition 16-10 while controlling 53.1% of the expected goals and 56.6% of the high-danger chances, per Natural Stat Trick.
Without Aston-Reese, the duo of Blueger and Tanev gets heavily outplayed. In 324 minutes at 5v5, Blueger and Tanev minus Aston-Reese have been outscored 13-5, and controlled just 43.5% of the expected goals and 42.7% of the high-danger chances.
Losing Aston-Reese wouldn’t be the end of the world for the Penguins, but I’d be hesitant to assert his impact won’t be missed alongside Blueger and Tanev.
Evolving Hockey’s contract projections have Aston-Reese’s most likely contract coming in at a 3-year deal with a cap hit of $2.12 million, making him an extremely appealing option for Seattle.
If Seattle doesn’t select Aston-Reese, I expect them to pick Jason Zucker.
Zucker scored 8 goals in his first 19 regular and postseason games with the Penguins before turning in a rather abysmal injury-ridden season in which he scored just 9 times in 38 regular season contests.
Before coming to Pittsburgh, Zucker was a two-way beast that had a very strong impact on his team’s ability to generate quality offense with above-average impacts in his own zone.
The same can’t be said for his season and a half with the Penguins. In 53 regular season games, the Penguins have been outscored 29-37 with Zucker on the ice at 5v5 while getting heavily outchanced.
I believe part of this to be due to Zucker spending the entire 2021 campaign stapled to an injured Evgeni Malkin, who isn’t a great stylistic fit, as well as Zucker spending a hefty chunk of his 2019-20 Penguins campaign with Jack Johnson.
Immediately after being acquired, Zucker played on Crosby’s left wing and put up dominant results when they were away from Johnson. Zucker’s heavy forecheck and give-and-go style is much more suited for a player like Crosby than Malkin, and I was surprised we didn’t see them together at all this past season.
Whether Zucker’s play-driving prowess ever resurfaces or not, he still scores 5v5 goals at a decent rate and has the character and personality to become Seattle’s first captain.
They might be turned off by his $5.5 million cap hit, but if they aren’t it would go a long way in clearing some much needed cap space for the Penguins to balance out the rest of their lineup.
Thanks for reading! Let’s talk hockey on Twitter. Follow me @shireyirving.
On-ice data via Natural Stat Trick
Contract projections from Evolving Hockey
Prospect data from Patrick Bacon (TopDownHockey)
Prospect visualization from JFreshHockey