Tim Benz: Penguins may need significant change to make minor improvements
At his season-ending news conference, Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford made it clear the team would come back looking different in the fall.
He also made it clear those changes to the makeup of the roster didn't have to be seismic.
I'm wondering how possible that is.
"We're a good team. And we will be a good team moving forward," said Rutherford on May 9. "We'll have a chance to win again. We have the nucleus to do that."
Yet, Rutherford also stated, "I'm going to keep an open mind to making some changes. I will make some changes.
"I think it's fair to say that this will be a different-looking team by the time we open next season. It doesn't mean that there will be drastic changes, a lot of changes. But there will be changes in the areas that will become necessary."
OK. Measured. Rational.
The question is — Can Rutherford really do one without the other? Given the salary cap situation, how possible is it going to be to substantively change the lineup without shedding at least one big salary or a few familiar names?
The $75 million cap is projected to rise $5 million to $7 million in 2018-'19. The Penguins have 17 players signed for next season at the rate of $72.2 million.
So that's approximately $8 million to $10 million of space. Still looming, though, are restricted free agent contracts for Jamie Oleksiak, Bryan Rust, Riley Sheahan, Dominik Simon and Tom Kuhnhackl.
If the Penguins were to retain all or most of those players, they would be right at, or likely beyond, the cap.
Also, consider the price of doing business on the free agent market, particularly on defense, where the Penguins should try to add at least one — if not two — top-six worthy skaters. Last year, the Penguins decided not to retain Ron Hainsey. He got $3 million a year to be, at the time anyway, a mid-leverage defenseman in Toronto.
The Pens replaced him with Matt Hunwick. He gets $2.25 million and barely plays.
Therefore, this year in free agency expect to pay somewhere near $3.5 million or $4 million for a Hainsey-type and close to $3 million for anything better than Hunwick.
And you thought the price of gas was bloated?
Further complicating matters is the decree from Rutherford that Daniel Sprong is going to be a regular on the NHL roster next year. If he's more sincere about these sentiments than he was about similar odes to Derrick Pouliot, that means the Penguins will have four right wings next year, none of whom really project as a fourth liner: Sprong, Rust, Phil Kessel and Patric Hornqvist.
Rust is the only one who can likely move to the left side. But then who gets bumped from their current spot? Jake Guentzel off Sidney Crosby's line? Unlikely.
Rust could play with Evgeni Malkin again, which would be fine. But then either Conor Sheary or Carl Hagelin will be getting $3 million-$4 million to be a fourth-line winger. That's unnecessary. This is Rutherford's challenge to his own statement. With so much ice time and cap space spoken for, does he make the team "look different" without being drastic?
The truth may have been in the language from Rutherford. Note the word "drastic." Whether he meant to do this or not, Rutherford is warming us up for something there.
Punting on the Derick Brassard trade as a failed effort and now spinning him off for minimal return, that would be "drastic." Trading Kessel would be "drastic." Even moving Kris Letang, as Rutherford has admitted he won't entirely rule out , could be described that way.
But some of those other potential moves probably appear more "drastic" than what they are. Dealing Sheary, Hagelin and either the rights of Rust, Simon or Kuhnhackl in various moves probably feels drastic. It would also free up three roster spots and roughly $9 million to $11 million in cap room.
Plus, only one of those guys is likely to be among the team's top-six forwards to start next season, especially if the Penguins really do tinker with the notion of Brassard on a wing .
Even considering the quantity of the moves, are they really "drastic?" Or do they just appear that way because the emotions surrounding those players are tied to two Cup victories?
I think it's the latter, because Rust is "Mr. Game 7," and Sheary is like having "Rudy" on skates, and moving Hagelin would hurt because that would mean H-B-K is now down to just, well, "K."
If Penguins fans don't want to see major moves to a roster they have grown to love, but still want to see it improve, sorry, but trades of players like that are as "minor" as it is going to get.
Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at email@example.com or via Twitter @TimBenzPGH.