The Penguins will contend for a third straight Stanley Cup. A glance at their roster makes them not doing so almost inconceivable.
But two of their most important players are wingers Zach Aston-Reese and Daniel Sprong. Neither was in the NHL last season: Reese played college hockey at Northeastern, Sprong played Quebec Major Junior hockey.
The Penguins are interested in Will Butcher, the defenseman who won the Hobey Baker Award as college hockey’s top player this past season while skating for Denver University. He becomes a free agent Aug. 15.
The Penguins are already strong at wing and defense. That’s not the point.
Aston-Reese and Sprong give the Penguins flexibility at wing. Butcher would give them flexibility on defense.
This isn’t like the “financial flexibility” the Pirates crow about, but never use.
Having quality young talent on cheap, entry-level deals can help the Penguins in the short term, and those players can realize their promise in the long run.
The Penguins need a third-line center. Pickings are slim in free agency, as in non-existent. GM Jim Rutherford will have to fill that hole via trade, which is fine by him. Rutherford likes to deal, and he’s good at it.
A very plausible scenario sees the Penguins improvising at third-line center for a month or two this coming season. Aston-Reese and Sprong mature a bit with the Penguins’ Wilkes-Barre/Scranton farm team.
When the right third-line center is available, Rutherford swaps a wing off the NHL roster. (Probably Conor Sheary. Sheary is a solid, skilled talent, and his new three-year, $9 million contract makes him easy to trade.) Aston-Reese or Sprong is promoted to Pittsburgh.
The Penguins have $3.2 million in cap space available. Aston-Reese’s NHL salary is $925,000. Sprong’s is $692,500.
So the Penguins could get a good third-line center with a fairly large salary and not sweat the cap hit. They would likely still have a decent cushion.
Contributing players on entry-level contracts enable teams to effectively transition their roster while still competing. You can never have enough.
The Penguins like Aston-Reese and Sprong.
The Penguins’ roster this past season was lousy with NCAA products: 16, an incredible number. The team’s proclivity for giving college players a legit chance helped lure Aston-Reese, and will help with Butcher.
The Penguins feel Aston-Reese’s combination of grit and skill makes him comparable to Patric Hornqvist. Sprong is a pure goal-scorer (32 goals in 31 games this past season, his participation limited by recovery from surgery).
Aston-Reese will likely be ready for the NHL first. Sprong needs a bit more work on his defense and humility.
But both will contribute sooner, not later.
The Penguins have some interesting debates at wing.
Sheary presents the Penguins with a dilemma: Sheary isn’t effective in a bottom-six role. On the current roster, he’s no lock for a top-six spot (although being able to play either wing works in Sheary’s favor). If he doesn’t earn top-six, what to do with Sheary?
Rutherford would probably like to move Carl Hagelin, who made $4 million but scored just six goals.
But when you won the Stanley Cup, stats aren’t everything. Hagelin’s speed and forecheck help forge the Penguins’ identity.
Anyway, there likely wouldn’t be much market for Hagelin. He’s only valuable as a bottom-six on a legit contender.
Scott Wilson could get a look at top-six despite scoring just eight goals. The Penguins see Wilson as a burgeoning Chris Kunitz-type player, and Wilson looked relatively comfortable when skating on a line with Evgeni Malkin. (Not sure if Malkin was crazy about it.)
Lots of NHL teams want Bryan Rust. Rust isn’t untouchable, but Rutherford is unlikely to trade him. Rust is a fast, feisty, well-rounded talent with a knack for big moments: Witness eight goals in playoff elimination games.
The Penguins have great depth at wing.
It will be ultimately be used to solve their lack of depth at center.
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays at WXDX-FM (105.9).