Free Agency Thoughts Part I: Penguins Succeed in Adding Cheap Depth

By: Meesh Shanmugam (@HockeyMeesh)

The start of free agency was busy for all Penguins, both old and new. The Pens so far have added five players, retained two, and waved goodbye to eight others with some eye-opening and jaw-dropping contracts.

Here are some thoughts on the additions and re-signings. Part II will be a look at the departures.

Free Agent Signings

Christian Ehrhoff from Buffalo (1 year, $4 million, no-movement clause)

The 31-year-old defenseman (turns 32 next week) was a buyout casualty of the Sabres heading into free agency. Don’t be fooled though, he wasn’t bought out because he was awful. Ehrhoff’s numbers dropped in Buffalo, but some of that can be attributed to his teammates. Ehrhoff was bought out due to the framework of his previous contract, which would have left Buffalo with a cap recapture penalty if he retired early. Therefore, Buffalo opted to avoid the risk and buy him out. Ehrhoff gives the Penguins a solid 2nd pairing defenseman who is a strong skater, knows how to jump into the offensive zone, and can certainly help mentor the younger group of defensemen coming up that have many of his attributes. He can be used in all situations and should thrive with the Penguins. At just $4 million, his contract is one of the best values of free agency.

Blake Comeau from Columbus (1 year, $700k),

Comeau entered the league with better-than-expected success in Long Island, but has struggled to find his game since departing from the Islanders. The 28-year-old can be counted on for “grit” and will definitely throw his body around on the forecheck even when his scoring abilities disappear for stretches. At $700k, this is a bargain bin pick up that makes the Penguins “tougher to play against” and could benefit them greatly if Comeau can produce with any sort of consistency. He is definitely an upgrade to the previous group in the bottom-six.

Thomas Greiss from Arizona (1 year, $1 million)

Greiss has been a career backup, mostly bouncing between the AHL and NHL with San Jose and then joining Phoenix as a full-time backup last season. The 28-year-old is looking for an opportunity to earn more starts and push the #1 goalie, which may be perfect to pressure Fleury in a contract year and give the Penguins an experienced backup. While Jeff Zatkoff was an adequate backup last season, the general consensus was that the team was stuck at Fleury or bust. Greiss provides a little better chance if Fleury has issues (mentally or physically). Jim Rutherford said that he would like to keep all three goaltenders in the organization and will have the second and third guys (presumably Greiss and Zatkoff) in a battle for the backup position.

At $1 million, this signing looks rather odd, especially given Jeff Zatkoff’s status and the new atmosphere of three goalies with one-way NHL contracts. Based on Rutherford’s experience with Cam Ward and signing Anton Khudobin in Carolina though, he understands the value of having a strong backup who is there for more than just giving the starter a night off in back-to-back situations. Greiss is likely a slight upgrade from Zatkoff, which will probably force Zatkoff somewhere else (NHL or into the AHL) going into the season. Overall, the signing makes the team better at a reasonable, though perhaps not necessary, cost.

Taylor Chorney from St. Louis (1 year, two-way deal)

Chorney had some limited NHL time a few years back before falling into the AHL as a regular. At 27 years old, he still has some upside, but this move is likely more promising from an AHL point of view. Chorney was the captain for the Chicago Wolves last year and fits the mold of the younger prospects in the organization as a good skater and potential puck-mover. Chorney’s leadership and experience will be valuable in bringing the kids along in the AHL.

Steve Downie from Philadelphia (1 year, $1 million)

Downie brings a mixed bag of emotions to Pens fans. He has had three suspensions (20 games in ’07, 20 games in the AHL in ’09, and 1 game in ’11). He has also had one fine, which happened to be for an incident with Sidney Crosby in ’11. In addition to his not-so-clean resume, Downie has dealt with concussion issues and other various injuries throughout his career, often limiting his games. The bad version of Downie is annoying to play against, but also bad for his team.

On the other hand, the good version of Downie provides versatility, a small scoring touch, and a significant physical presence. Downie is capable of playing well at both ends of the ice and is a pest that can disrupt opponents (ideally, not crossing the line). His best year came with Rich Tocchet as an assistant coach in Tampa Bay, so the Penguins are trying to make that connection work at a bargain price. He had a dismal year last year in Philadelphia and will be looking to fix his game at just 27 years old.

For 1 year and $1 million, this is a solid deal for the Penguins. There is certainly risk if Downie can’t harness his game, but the short term and low price account for that. Downie makes the Penguins more difficult to play against, which has been an issue for this team, especially in the playoffs. There will be stupid penalties, but hopefully he will draw just as many with his agitator’s role. Downie slots onto the third line most likely and can handle tough competition, which definitely improves the Penguins depth. Many will not like him as a player from previous years, but most will appreciate him the first time he defends Crosby or draws another star into a stupid penalty. My suggestion – give him a chance.

Free Agent Re-Signings

Marcel Goc (1 year, $1.2 million)

Goc only played in 12 regular season games last year with the Penguins before suffering an ankle injury and then added in 9 playoff games, combining for a total of three assists in those 21 games. Admittedly, I was not impressed with his short Pittsburgh tenure and I rated him in the Noteworthy and Bad sections of the recaps more than I expected when he was originally acquired.

However, Goc never had a fighting chance given his situation in Pittsburgh. He was given dismal linemates, no clear role, and had to deal with the injury as well. With a $500k pay cut from last season and given his track record prior to Pittsburgh, Goc appears to be a very solid depth signing. He is a smart, defensive forward that is strong in the faceoff circle and does have some limited offensive potential. He fits well in the bottom-six and has the potential to help significantly on the penalty kill and on a limited basis on the powerplay. His one-year, $1.2 million deal is very reasonable for a depth forward as versatile as he is.

Nick Drazenovic (1 year, two-way deal)

The 27-year-old Drazenovic has played in the NHL sparingly (12 games), spending most of his time in the AHL. He played one game with Pittsburgh last season and it was not a pretty sight. In the AHL though, Drazenovic provides versatility and is a capable contributor. Ideally, this move will be just for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and not affect the Penguins (unless there is a long list of injuries again).

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At this point, all the Penguins really need is a top-six winger.

Check in later today for the Penguins departures and a look at the roster! Thanks for reading!!