Penguins position breakdown: Right wing should provide most offseason suspense
Editor’s note: Heading into the NHL draft June 22-23 and the opening of the free agent signing period July 1, staff writer Jonathan Bombulie will conduct a six-part, position-by-position examination of the team’s organizational depth chart.
On the Penguins’ organizational depth chart, the right side is where the excitement is.
Some of the most intriguing personnel decisions the franchise has made in the past four months and will make in the next four months involve the team’s top four right wings — Phil Kessel, Patric Hornqvist, Bryan Rust and Daniel Sprong.
For Kessel, the question is whether he should be traded.
A portion of the team’s fan base has revolted at the mere mention of moving Kessel, calling the idea a media-created mountain out of a molehill, but his value coming off a career-high 92-point season never will be higher, and he’s not the most coach-friendly athlete around. A deal can’t be ruled out.
For Hornqvist, the question was whether the Penguins could live without him.
General manager Jim Rutherford answered with an emphatic no in late February, signing the fiery Swede to a five-year contract extension.
For Sprong, the question is whether his time is now.
The Penguins have been extraordinarily patient with the 21-year-old top prospect, who was a point-per-game performer in the AHL last season and scored a couple of goals in an eight-game NHL tryout. They have wanted his play without the puck to match his high-end offensive skill.
He would need to clear waivers to be sent to Wilkes-Barre again, so at the least, his roster spot in October seems secure.
Finally, for Rust, the question is what his next contract will look like.
Rust is one of six key restricted free agents Rutherford will have to get under contract in the next month or so. A two-year, $5 million contract is probably a reasonable guess at what Rust will receive, unless the GM has his sights set on a longer-term solution.
In the NHL
Last year: 34-58—92. Age: 30. Years left on contract: 4
Last year: 29-20—49. Age: 31. Years left on contract: 5
Last year: 13-25—38. Age: 26. Years left on contract: RFA
Last year: 2-1—3. Age: 21.Years left on contract: RFA
Mike Sullivan and his staff have debated for a couple years whether to play Kessel with Evgeni Malkin or split them up for more balance. Here’s why it’s such a difficult call. Two years ago, when Kessel and Malkin were on the ice together at five-on-five, the Penguins outscored their opponents 44-17. Last year, though, when the duo played together, the Penguins were outscored 31-28. So are they better together or not? … Hornqvist might be the most reliable player on the roster. He has scored between 21 and 30 goals all eight full seasons he has played in the NHL. … Rust is most valuable because of his versatility. He can play left or right wing on any of the team’s four lines. … If Sprong can meet a baseline standard of play without the puck, he will be a contributor next season. If not, rocky times could lie ahead.
DOWN THE ROAD
Height, weight: 6-1, 195. Age: 23
Height, weight: 6-0, 174. Age: 19
Lafferty, a Hollidaysburg native, is a two-way prospect who had a productive cup of coffee in Wilkes-Barre at the end of his college season last year. … Drozg, a native of Slovenia, is coming off a 50-point season in juniors in his first year in North America.
It looks like the organizational depth chart is light on the right side, but that’s only because this list includes exclusively wingers who are right-handed shooters. Left-handed shots like NHL regulars Conor Sheary and Tom Kuhnhackl and prospects Sam Miletic and Kasper Bjorkqvist, just to name a few, have experience playing on the right side.
THE BIG MOVE
A Kessel trade probably would be the biggest move the Penguins could make this offseason. For such a deal to make sense, Rutherford would need to receive a great offer — one that makes the Penguins’ roster immediately better and/or clears salary cap space for a related high-impact move — from one of the eight teams not on Kessel’s no-trade list.
THE SMALL MOVE
If the Penguins are planning to make use of Rust’s versatility and move him around the lineup, it might be wise to target a low-cost free agent who can play right wing on the fourth line.
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at [email protected] or via Twitter @BombulieTrib.