Penguins plan to be aggressive in free agency
PHILADELPHIA — The youth movement is under way.
Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford said the team has four primary targets entering free agency, which begins Tuesday. Expect most of them to be forwards.
The Penguins are prepared to let their young defensemen play, which will allow them to distribute a larger percentage of cap space than usual to forwards.
“We're extremely excited about these young defensemen,” associate general manager Jason Botterill said. “Brian Dumoulin. Scott Harrington. Simon Despres. It's time for them to get an opportunity.”
Botterill said having multiple defensemen on entry-level contracts at the NHL level will save the Penguins money against the salary cap, which will allow them to tackle their biggest need: depth at forward.
The Penguins have seven forwards under contract for next season. Those seven, however, account for $31.65 million of the $69 million salary cap.
Two other forwards, center Brandon Sutter and left wing Nick Spaling, are restricted free agents and expected to receive raises.
Sutter, who scored five goals in 13 playoff games this spring, carried a $2.7 million salary-cap hit on this past contract. The Penguins project that market value could take Sutter's next average annual salary to around $4 million.
Though they have only $14.6 million of cap space available — seven forwards, five defensemen and two goalies are locked into NHL contracts next season — the Penguins are eager to find center Evgeni Malkin a winger and improve their bottom-six forwards.
One of the players on the Penguins' radar is forward Nikolai Kulemin. The 27-year-old winger is an unrestricted free agent and Malkin's best friend. The two have been linemates in international competitions and with Metallurg Magnitogorsk in the Kontinental Hockey League.
Malkin lost his preferred linemate Friday when the Penguins traded right winger James Neal to Nashville. Hours after the trade, Rutherford said he would try to “satisfy” Malkin through free agency.
Kulemin is a former 30-goal scorer whose performance has been sporadic during his six-year career with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The Penguins have said they are interested in players who possess strong advanced stats numbers, specifically those pertaining to puck possession. Kulemin fits that description. He also desires a top-six role.
When asked if he was concerned about the cap situation and whether a high-priced player needed to be removed from the current roster, Rutherford responded, “No and no.”
The Penguins intend to aggressively pursue their targets.
“You can always be aggressive,” Botterill said. “Are you going for top-end forwards and defensemen? No. But you can be aggressive going after specific needs. That's what we're going to do on July 1.”
The organization's decision to go young on the blue line is clear.
Defenseman Brooks Orpik, the franchise's longest-tenured player, is not being targeted for a new contract. Neither is defenseman Matt Niskanen.
Niskanen, coveted by the Minnesota Wild, is seeking a seven-year contract worth at least $5 million annually. That kind of contract doesn't work for the Penguins.
One player who fit into the Penguins' plans is Despres. The team's 2009 first-round draft pick, who was never a favorite of former coach Dan Bylsma, will be given an opportunity to shine.
“Without a doubt,” Botterill said. “You saw how he played in the playoffs in Wilkes-Barre. It was a great step in the right direction. He went down there with a better attitude. He was very physical. I think he enjoyed playing. It's been a difficult situation for our defensemen because of the depth that we have.”
Or used to have.
Niskanen and Orpik are expected to leave the Penguins this week, as is unrestricted free agent Deryk Engelland.
Defensemen Olli Maatta and Derrick Pouliot endured recent shoulder surgeries and could miss the beginning of the season.
“You have to trust what they can do in the future,” Botterill said. “We want to add depth at forward. The fact that we have defensemen that we're comfortable with on entry-level contract us will allow us to use more (cap space) on forwards.”