Pittsburgh Penguins Reunions and Divorces: 2024 Offseason

What will the Penguins offseason bring?
Pittsburgh Penguins v New York Islanders
Pittsburgh Penguins v New York Islanders / Bruce Bennett/GettyImages

While the 2024 NHL Playoffs soldier on, the administrative offices within PPG Paints Arena are churning. The entire club’s coaching staff has been put on notice. With the ‘relief’ of Todd Reirden coming this week, another 25+ lower-level staff relieved of their duties, and the reported friction between General Manager Kyle Dubas and Mike Sullivan on remaining staff, change is looming ahead. This begs the deeper question: who is ultimately responsible for the failures experienced by a team with four plus Hall of Fame candidates, numerous veterans, and too few upcoming prospects?

GM Kyle Dubas took additional steps to ensure the ‘future blueprint’ he adamantly referenced during his recent press conferences by releasing the high-level coaching staff of the AHL Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins (WBS), the NHL club’s minor league affiliate. Head Coach J.D. Forrest and Assistant Coach Kevin Porter’s contracts will not be renewed by the organization. According to Assistant General Manager Jason Spezza, the search for a new WBS Head Coach will begin immediately.

The potential lack of a considerable and talented prospect pool haunts the nightmares of passionate Penguins fans nationwide. Contrary to an organization like the Boston Bruins, who seem to consistently challenge for a Stanley Cup while continuing to reload in the minors, Pittsburgh executed past trades and missteps that resulted in the current challenges faced today. From what talent pool will the Penguins surround Sidney Crosby and Co. in order to challenge for playoff supremacy?

Mike Sullivan
Pittsburgh Penguins v Boston Bruins / Winslow Townson/GettyImages

Although Dubas commented on the continuation of Mike Sullivan as the head coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins heading in to the offseason, rumors have linked Sullivan to the recent New Jersey vacancy. Regardless of the coaching staff, the focus is now on rounding out the roster for the upcoming 2024-2025 season. Below is an outline of a few potential scenarios for the offseason that includes: quick resigns, reuniting with former Penguins (including one specific polarizing player), and a wish list of existing restricted free agents (RFAs).

Here we go:

Penguin Priorities?

The Penguins have four existing unrestricted free agents (UFAs) and two RFAs requiring decisions. One of those UFAs recently retired (thank you, Mr. Jeff Carter, for an amazing career) so the focus turns to the remaining: Alex Nedeljkovik, Valterri Puustinen, and Jansen Harkins. Although an admirable waiver wire pick-up, Jansen Harkins should be easily replaceable with a similar pick-up or minor league player (i.e. recently resigned Sam Poulin).  

Valtteri Puustinen
Pittsburgh Penguins v Columbus Blue Jackets / Jason Mowry/GettyImages

Puustinen displayed a knack for inconsistent play this season, but in 52 games played, did net five goals and 15 assists. He developed a rapport on the second line with Evgeni Malkin, and showed the ability to spark in the offensive zone. There may not be a large market for his services, so there is a chance for Dubas to sneak a two-year, $2M deal for a decent role player.

Alex Nedeljkovic, Pavel Zacha
Pittsburgh Penguins v Boston Bruins / Winslow Townson/GettyImages

Tristan Jarry and his lack of availability this season opened the door the last UFA on the list: Alex Nedeljkovic. Nedeljkovic may be the most important UFA signing the club will have to make. He has definitely earned a raise on the one-year, $1.5M deal signed last offseason, and showed a knack for making big saves when the team needed it most. With a halfway decent defense in front of him, the potential seen in his early Detroit days may be attainable. Personally, I have been clambering for a mid-season resign to a possible two-year deal that would have suppressed the cost, but it fell on deaf ears (Mr. Dubas does not read his Twitter feed very often, apparently). He was a dependable back-up, and argument could be made that Nedeljkovic has earned a shot at supplanting Jarry as the starter next season.

Tough decisions remain with underperformers brought on last year by GM Dubas in Noel Accari and Matt Nieto. However, chances of a trade are nil given their salary cap hits: $2M for the next 2 years and $900K x one-year respectively. These will most likely have to be absorbed until UFA.

Cody Ceci, Quinton Byfield
Los Angeles Kings v Edmonton Oilers - Game Two / Codie McLachlan/GettyImages

Too much speculation will be spent this offeason on ‘offer sheets’ to existing RFAs and their respective clubs. I will only highlight two younger players that may be a good fit in Sullivan’s system SHOULD they be available and not ultimately resigned by their respective clubs. Matthew Beniers (SEA) will be 21 next year, and netted 37 points in 77 games played (according to CapFriendly.com). It is highly likely Seattle will attempt to extend Beniers, but he could be a great building piece for the Penguins if they are willing to submit an offer sheet to lock him down. Seattle did the Penguins no favors during the franchise entry draft, so I would not think twice about submitting an offer sheet for a talent like Beniers. Quinton Byfield (LA Kings) is another RFA talent that may be available via the offer sheet process. At only 21 years old and able to play multiple positions, Byfield showed out in his first full season with the big club in netting 20 goals and 55 points. He could be another young piece with which to surround Sidney Crosby and build for the future while remaining competitive in the present. A former first round pick, he likely will have the Kings submitting offers shortly after the conclusion of the playoffs; but we can hold out hope that maybe Dubas has another ‘ace’ up his sleeve in line with the Erik Karlsson trade last year.

Reunions Abound

Ugly potential divorces aside, there may be the opportunity for mutually beneficial reunions with lower salary cap impact to help round out a veteran group that is still capable of competing for Lord Stanley.

Jason Zucker
Nashville Predators v Vancouver Canucks - Game Five / Derek Cain/GettyImages

Reilly Smith was acquired this offseason for a third round draft pick from the defending Stanley Cup Champion Vegas Knights as a replacement for serviceable winger Jason Zucker. Smith never really fit Sullivan’s system, and it reflected in his stats. He was the subject of trade rumors around the 2024 deadline, but nothing materialized. Smith may be swapped for a low round draft pick and/or minor league assets in the offseason. Jason Zucker , however, was a locker room and fan favorite during his time in Pittsburgh. Initially, Zucker struggled with injuries and availability, but showed, when healthy, he was capable of turning games and jump-starting the offense, while working extremely well with Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby. Zucker signed a one-year $5.3M last year with the former Arizona Coyotes (prior to a trade to Nashville at the deadline) while posting nine goals and 25 points after only a season removed from a 27 goal, 48 point season with Pittsburgh. Resigning Zucker would bring a familiar face back to the locker room who is familiar with Sullivan’s system and could conservatively net 10-15 goals in a second or third line role. He should not cost more than $3-4M on a one or two-year deal based on his performance this year.

Jake Guentzel
Carolina Hurricanes v Pittsburgh Penguins / Justin Berl/GettyImages

Jake Guentzel is an obvious return candidate given his controversial trade at the 2024 deadline. He has shown the same knack for finding the back of the net with the Hurricanes, and based on the sale of his Pittsburgh home to former teammate Bryan Rust, it does not look like a reunion is in the cards, although odder things have happened (see Pittburgh Steelers QB Room).

Matt Murray, Jake McCabe, Matthew Tkachuk
Toronto Maple Leafs v Florida Panthers / Joel Auerbach/GettyImages

The last inclusion will be highly controversial, but hear me out. Matt Murray is a former two-time Stanley Cup champion with our Penguins, and most recently was signed by Kyle Dubas in Toronto. With an expiring contract, maybe Murray finds his way back on memory lane. This could make things interesting in the goalie room, as trade rumors involving Tristian Jarry have begun to surface. Underperforming goalies in this year’s playoffs have only added fuel to the trade rumor fires. Murray may provide a veteran back-up if Nedeljovik is resigned, or competition for the back-up spot with AHL standout Joel Bloomqvist (AHL All-Rookie Team, AHL All Star Second Team) behind Jarry. Either way, this could be an advantageous union for a multitude of reasons. Murray shouldn’t command anywhere near the $8M given he missed the 2023-2024 Regular Season with injury and has underperformed since leaving Pittsburgh. This may give Murray the chance to take a back-up role in a comfortable system while sharing a locker room again with Sid, Geno, and Tanger.

Sidney Crosby
Pittsburgh Penguins v New York Rangers - Game Five / Bruce Bennett/GettyImages

This is a crucial offseason for General Manager Kyle Dubas. He enters his second year, and now has a firm grasp on this roster. He will again have limited flexibility, even with an increasing league-wide salary cap. Here’s hoping we see some infusion of risk and creativity, as this fan base cannot take another wasted year of Sidney Crosby.