Free Agency Thoughts Part II: Former Penguins Break the Bank

By: Meesh Shanmugam (@HockeyMeesh)

Part I was posted earlier today and covered the Penguins acquisitions and re-signings. Here is a look at the departures so far in free agency.

Free Agency Departures

Jussi Jokinen to Florida (4 years, $16 million)

Jokinen turned into an amazing rags-to-riches (okay, maybe not rags) story for the Penguins in the lockout-shortened season. Jokinen was placed on waivers by Carolina as he played in the bottom-six and looked like a dismal way to spend $3 million for the Hurricanes. After no one claimed him on waivers, the Pens traded a conditional pick for him and the Hurricanes retained $900k of Jokinen’s salary. The conditions were not met and the Penguins ended up with Jokinen for free.

Jokinen’s tenure with the Penguins was wonderful. He was clutch while Crosby was out with a broken jaw in 2013, scoring 11 points in the final 10 regular season games. He never got it going in the playoffs that year, receiving bottom-six minutes and being forced into a healthy scratch at times. He only played in 8 playoff games and recorded 3 assists. This past season, Jokinen recorded 57 points in 81 games and added 10 points in 13 playoff games, leading the team with 7 playoff goals.

At this point in his career, Jokinen is a solid 2nd line winger, who can also play center. His versatility allows him to play both powerplay and penalty kill if necessary as well. At the age of 31 though, his game will likely slow down. Between that and the Penguins’ salary cap situation, he was simply not worth either 4 years or $4 million/yr for the Penguins. Florida is gaining a great mentor for Aleksander Barkov and Jokinen is worth more to them for that reason than any other.

Unfortunately based on free agency so far, this is the major hole that the Penguins still haven’t filled. Jokinen was just too expensive to keep that role though.

Tanner Glass to NY Rangers (3 years, $4.35 million)

The two-year deal that the Penguins gave Tanner Glass never really amounted to anything. He struggled in his first year with the team, playing in all 48 games but only managing a goal and an assist. He played in five playoff games, but was frequently a healthy scratch. Glass wasn’t able to find his role in that first season.

His second season started off much better. Glass looked quicker, was successfully getting the puck into the offensive zone, and was throwing efficient hits. A broken hand in November took him out of the lineup for a few weeks and that would be the end of his revival. Glass was unable to find his game again aside from an impressive blocked shot here and there. He finished the season with 13 points in 67 games and played in 8 playoff games, eventually turning into a healthy scratch, which apparently made him very bitter.

The Rangers had their depth pilfered with Pouliot and Boyle leaving in free agency. They will try to replace it cheaply with Glass, but he is certainly a step back for them. The Penguins had no reason to bring him back.

Joe Vitale to Arizona (3 years, $3.35 million)

Vitale was a 7th round draft pick of the Penguins in the 2005 draft. He spent 2+ seasons with WBS before jumping up to the Pens for 3+ seasons. He finished his Penguins career with 35 points in 163 regular season games. Vitale performed at a level that you would expect for a cheap depth player. He occasionally brought a spark to the team, but he was limited in his versatility and overall skill. He would have been a decent player to keep in a 13th forward role, but wasn’t worth what Arizona paid him for the Penguins.

Brooks Orpik to Washington (5 years, $27.5 million, limited no-trade clause)

Orpik was drafted by the Penguins in the 1st round of the 2000 draft and definitely panned out successfully for the organization. In 703 games, he finished with 132 points. His best years fell in line with some of the team’s best years from 2007-2010 as the franchise reached two Stanley Cup Finals and won a Stanley Cup Championship.

He will always be remembered for his jarring hits, “the shift” against Detroit, and his generally angry-at-the-world quotes. Orpik did well during most of his tenure in Pittsburgh, but he was clearly on the decline towards the end. He appeared to lose a step in his game, struggled with gap-control decisions, and became less effective from both a visual and advanced metric standpoint.

With the stable of young defensive prospects in the organization and Orpik’s decline, it was the right time to part ways. As for the contract that Orpik received from Washington…wow. The length is crazy for a defenseman already in decline and the money is too much as well compared to the overall market. Orpik may help bring a different voice into the locker room and bring along some of Washington’s younger defensemen, but both the term and price are astounding.

Matt Niskanen to Washington (7 years, $40.25 million, limited no-trade clause)

Niskanen played 3+ seasons in Dallas before getting traded to the Penguins along with James Neal for Alex Goligoski. By the time he left Dallas, he had gone from promising prospect to lost third pairing defenseman. He enjoyed a career revival in Pittsburgh, recording 21 points in 75 games in 2011-12, 14 points in 40 games in 2013, and putting together his all-around best year in 2013-14 with 46 points in 81 games.

Niskanen was shoved into top defenseman minutes during this past season due to injuries and he thrived in the role. The past year was by far the best year of his career, but some advanced metrics suggest there was a bit of luck involved and he’s due to come down from that peak. Either way, Niskanen earned himself a big payday with a career year. It was a payday that the Penguins were never going to be able to afford.

In regards to his contract with the Caps, the money is as expected in this market but the term is a bit much. Seven years provides for a lot of time to decline, but that was the cost of getting Niskanen. In the end, he was probably slightly overpaid and definitely given too many years. The Capitals hope they can make it work with him and Orpik joining their assistant coach Todd Reirden from Pittsburgh.

Deryk Engelland to Calgary (3 years, $8.7 million)

Engelland spent a lot of time in the minor leagues before finally getting a taste of the NHL with Pittsburgh in 2009-10. He then spent four years with the team, getting a fairly regular spot in the lineup, even if it was as a forward at times over the past season. Engelland is best known for his fighting ability and willingness to take on the heavyweights.

He’s the type of player that is willing to do anything for the team, but it doesn’t mean he wants to. He was not thrilled with his forward role over this past season and the Penguins did not need to retain him with a plethora of defensive options. At this point, it was time to part ways.

When the decision to part ways was set, little did anyone know that Engelland would cash in with a gigantic contract for his role. Calgary justified the signing by saying that Engelland will bring character and leadership to the team (oh, he also helps with the cap floor if necessary). Whatever role Engelland is playing, that is far too much money for a third pairing defenseman, as we know well with the Scuderi contract. Good for Engelland, his long journey paid off more than he probably even thought it would.

Chris Conner to Washington (1 year, two-way deal)

In his second stint of splitting time between Pittsburgh and WBS, Conner scored 4 goals and added 1 assist in 19 games in Pittsburgh. He was fairly successful in the AHL with 11 points in 17 games as well. Injuries derailed his season though. At this point in his career, Conner is a journeyman depth/call-up guy. He would have been a decent re-signing for WBS, but he is easily replaceable just as well.

Harry Zolnierczyk to NY Islanders (1 year, two-way deal)

Zolnierczyk’s signing was initially met with angst as the Penguins signed the former Flyer to a two-way deal. He only played 13 games with Pittsburgh, recording two goals. Most of his time was spent in WBS, where he had 36 points in 57 games. Overall, he was a decent energy guy and another good depth/call-up player. His career still has room to grow and he would have been a nice signing for WBS, but just like Conner, he is replaceable.

Chuck Kobasew to Switzerland (2 years, ?)

Kobasew was a late summer signing as the Penguins tried to add cheap bodies to the roster. He started off quickly with two goals in his first two games before eventually getting hurt and turning his Pittsburgh tenure into 33 games with only those two goals. He made a fantastic impact on WBS once he was sent down late in the season though. Kobasew finished the regular season with 13 points in 12 games for WBS and then added another 14 points in 14 games in the Calder Cup playoffs. With his NHL career certainly done, he has moved on to Switzerland.

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Thanks for reading!! Tomorrow, I will take a look at the Pens roster as it stands right now.