The Pittsburgh Penguins are built to win now, but that doesn’t mean their management team can’t prepare themselves for the future. Pens general manager Jim Rutherford has been known to never shy away from a bold move or two, and if you ask the veteran executive, his team is preparing themselves for what’s to come.
Rutherford was recently asked by Penguins beat writer Josh Yohe about the team’s plan once they have cap space to work with, and Rutherford’s answer was as calculated as ever:
The key to this as we go forward a couple of years down the road will be plugging in an impact player into the lineup. Maybe a couple of impact players. Not just a good player, but an impact guy. It’s hard to get the truly impactful guys, players like Crosby, Malkin, and Letang. But the time will come when we’ll have to add one of those types of players.
from ‘Jim Rutherford plans free agency splash to extend Penguins’ Stanley Cup window,’ The Athletic, 01/04/2021
The Penguins will have over $35 million in cap space before the 2022-23 season, and while they will have a few of their own free agents to sign, the team will be in a position to make some noise on the open market. Here are three names Rutherford should keep on his radar:
Johnny Gaudreau, Calgary Flames
‘Johnny Hockey’ will be 28 years old when the 2022 free agency period begins and he would be perfectly suited for the Penguins. Gaudreau’s speed and skill would mesh perfectly within the Pens’ top-six forwards on the wing of either Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin. Gaudreau is capable of putting up points, as some people forget he had a 99-point season in 2018-19.
Last season for the Calgary Flames, Gaudreau managed to tally 58 points in 70 games, and he’s hoping to get back to the elite level he’s used to.
The Flames haven’t enjoyed much playoff success as of late, so if their current core isn’t able to go deep into the postseason, expect to see some changes in Calgary. Gaudreau is one of the many players with a spotlight on his back and his career path will certainly be on the Penguins radar, along with several other teams.
Morgan Rielly, Toronto Maple Leafs
The best defenseman on the Toronto Maple Leafs is set to become an unrestricted free agent in 2022. The team has some serious cap issues, and with a flat salary cap expected for the next few years, a team like the Penguins could swoop in and present an offer Rielly wouldn’t be able to refuse.
Rielly is one of the most underrated defensemen in the league and he has offensive instincts that shine when playing with skilled players. Last season for the Maple Leafs, Rielly put up 27 points in 47 games, however, his ice-time was held back early on in the season because of then-coach Mike Babcock.
If you look back to 2019, Rielly recorded 72 points in 82 games – these are the type of numbers he’s capable of in the right environment. This season will be a big year for Rielly, who is expected to quarterback a power-play with Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, Wayne Simmonds and Joe Thornton for the Leafs.
The former fifth overall pick from the 2012 draft keeps developing all facets of his game and is currently making a very reasonable $5 million per season. Rielly would likely demand at least $7 million per year on the open market, and the Penguins should consider opening their cheque-book.
Filip Forsberg, Nashville Predators
Filip Forsberg quietly has gone about his business in Nashville and consistently has put up big numbers. The native of Sweden has scored 20 goals in each of his last six seasons and doesn’t appear to be slowing down anytime soon. He also knows how to produce in the playoffs, recording 49 points in 65 postseason games.
The Penguins do not have a ton of depth on right-wing and enter this season relying on Bryan Rust to continue to surprise as a goal-scorer, and Kasperi Kapanen, who has been tasked with keeping up with Crosby. Adding a piece like Forsberg would go a long way for the franchise and considering he will still be in his prime in 2022 at 27 years old, Forsberg is the exact type of impact player Rutherford is looking for.
Rutherford knows if you fail to prepare, you prepare to fail. While the team currently does not have a ton of cap space, that will change and the Penguins general manager will be as prepared as ever to spend some money.