Before the Penguins embarrassing demise in round 1 (that I am totally over and fine with), I made my first attempt at projecting who management will protect in the expansion draft. My, how the times have changed. The Penguins are in a precarious position, teetering between contention and rebuilding. How they approach this expansion draft will impact not only next season, but the rest of Sid and Geno’s careers in Pittsburgh. With just over a month to go until the draft, here’s my current guess on who the Penguins will protect.
Who I would protect
Following the same 7 forwards, 3 defensemen, 1 goalie model I used last time, here is what I prefer the Penguins do.
Forwards: Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jake Guentzel, Bryan Rust, Jared McCann, Kasperi Kapanen, Teddy Blueger
Defenseman: Brian Dumoulin, Kris Letang, Cody Ceci
Goalies: Casey DeSmith
Notable exempt players: John Marino
Notable exposed players: Brandon Tanev, Zach Aston-Reese, Jeff Carter, Jason Zucker, Mike Matheson, Marcus Pettersson, Tristan Jarry
There’s one common theme amongst the players I left exposed for this draft: bloated contracts. With the exception of Jeff Carter and ZAR, the rest of the players on this list have high cap hits and multiple years remaining. It’s no secret the Penguins need cap relief. Combined with the effects of COVID on spending, having cap space is more valuable than ever. It would allow the Penguins flexibility to better fill their roster with another impact forward or another quality goalie. It also puts them in a position to acquire assets to help this team for next year and beyond. The Penguins are going to lose a quality player, it is inevitable. But with my projected model, I believe they can keep their most impactful, and cost-effective players. I also believe that exposing certain players like Pettersson, Tanev, or Carter, is worth the risk because Seattle most likely wants a younger or cheaper player.
Who I believe the Penguins will protect
Forwards: Sid, Geno, Guentzel, Bryan Rust, Brandon Tanev, Kasperi Kapanen, Jared McCann
Defenseman: Brian Dumoulin, Kris Letang, Mike Matheson
Goalies: Tristan Jarry
Notable exposed players: Teddy Blueger, Zach Aston-Reese, Jeff Carter, Jason Zucker, Cody Ceci, Marcus Pettersson, Casey DeSmith
In GM Hextall’s end of the year presser, he maintained a commitment to his aging core and starting goaltender Tristan Jarry. Would he have been forthright if his intention were anything different? I doubt it. Is he looking for another goalie? Absolutely, he is. But at the moment you have to take his word. The Pittsburgh Penguins are planning to compete for a Stanley Cup next year, they’ve made that clear. Because of that, how they rank the importance of players is very different from how most would rank them.
Despite the contracts, I believe management will prioritize protecting impact players like Brandon Tanev, rather than risk losing them. I also protected Matheson because I believe management will find his contract unmovable and they have no one else to protect. The biggest similarity between the two lists is Jason Zucker and Zach Aston-Reese are exposed. Zucker is a great player, but he wasn’t acquired by the current management team and isn’t the kind of player they covet. Unfortunately for ZAR, his defensive metrics aren’t enough to convince management to protect him over a Jared McCann or Kasperi Kapanen. If either player is available, I think Seattle will think twice.
This is perhaps the most important off-season in the Sidney Crosby Era. The wrong choices can lead to Pittsburgh languishing in the league’s basement again while a superstar’s waning years fade into nothingness. But if GM Hextall and management play their cards right, especially with the expansion draft, they can send off their aging core with another spectacular run. Should be easy, right?