Coaches or executives moving to a new team and reuniting with players is, for better or worse, commonplace in professional sports, hockey included. At least to some degree, there’s logic to it. No matter how much homework an NHL team does on an outside player, there’s still a level of uncertainty as to how he might fit. When someone in the organization has experience with the player, it’s added certainty. Inside knowledge can be provided on how a player will act in practice on a day-to-day basis, how he responds to criticism, how attentive he is during video sessions, and so on.
As the Rangers attempt to improve the team this offseason and adjust tactics, it’s fair to wonder if newly hired assistant coach Jacques Martin will look to his former team in Pittsburgh for inspiration.
Truthfully, the Penguins made sense as a rallying partner well before Martin’s arrival. They and the Rangers are in very different situations. Penguins’ General Manager Jim Rutherford is extremely unhappy with how his team’s season ended and has already begun to make sweeping changes to the roster as they go all-in on a last window of contention with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
Furthermore, the pandemic has significantly hurt the Penguins’ financial situation and they are poised to dramatically reduce payroll. And while it’s not my place to personally set General Manager Jeff Gorton’s budget, one would think a big market team like the Rangers could be in a position to take advantage of others’ austerity.
Here are three potentially outbound Pittsburgh players who could fit in the Rangers’ offseason plan.
The Penguins center has had a strange career. A projected top-15 pick in the 2014 draft, McCann fell to Vancouver at 24th overall. He made the Canucks’ NHL roster as a 19-year-old but then was traded twice before his 23rd birthday. He was scratched in the Penguins’ elimination game against Montreal this past August and appears likely to be traded yet again, according to numerous media reports.
McCann’s NHL performances in Vancouver, Florida, and Pittsburgh have been all over the place, but generally speaking he’s been a consistently positive contributor at the NHL level. He’s not a physically imposing player and his skating is okay at best, but McCann is a creator with the puck on his stick. He has the poise, hands, and vision to find passing seams in the offensive zone. His shot is also a major positive as he can beat goalies from a stand-still. He’s also dramatically improved his defensive game to the point where it’s no longer an aggressive liability.
Ironically, the 2019-20 season was undoubtedly the best of McCann’s career before his stock plummeted in the final stretch. He finished the season with 14 goals and 21 assists in 66 games. McCann’s dip in performance is at least partially related to Pittsburgh’s trading deadline roster turnover. In particular, he found no chemistry with Patrick Marleau during the playoffs.
The 24-year-old is set to become a restricted free agent and is due for a raise that could more than double his current $1.25M annual cap hit. The Rangers are looking for help at center, but the big question is whether McCann is up for the task. He’s in a similar limbo to where Brandon Dubinsky and JT Miller were at similar ages, traditionally playing at center but arguably more suited for the wing. He’s struggled in the faceoff dot and the burden of responsibility at the position has overwhelmed him at times. But there’s no doubting he’s a quality NHL player and, at the right price, could be worth the gamble. Even moving him to left wing could allow the Rangers to push Panarin to the right side and give the Rangers a different kind of roster flexibility.
There are no concrete reports which make Dumoulin a serious trade candidate, but the Penguins’ current situation makes him a reasonable target for very serious speculation, at least.
In back-to-back Stanley Cup victories, particularly during the 2017 run in which Kris Letang was injured, Brian Dumoulin was the linchpin for a defensive corps that was otherwise built from the clearance rack. As hockey evolves, Dumoulin is an increasingly rare example of a big defensemen with minimal offensive output who nonetheless provides immense value.
The Penguins would probably prefer to keep Dumoulin, but if they’re desperate to cut payroll while still keeping Crosby, Malkin, and Letang then something has to give elsewhere. The team, to its own peril, is sticking by Jack Johnson, while young Marcus Pettersson’s new contract kicks in next season. That’s over $7M already dedicated to two left-side defensemen.
Dumoulin, 28, is set to make a base salary of $4.1M each season through 2023, making him a possible payroll casualty. The shutdown lefty is exactly the kind of player the Rangers need at the current moment. He defends the neutral zone extraordinarily well and transitions the puck out of the defensive zone quickly to his team’s offensive creators.
The trouble with mapping out the Rangers’ offseason is that, in so many cases, what the Rangers do with one player is contingent on what they do with other players. Here is a completely imaginary hypothetical. Re-signing Jesper Fast could lead to the Rangers determining they have an excess at right wing, which could result in Pavel Buchnevich being traded. A Buchnevich trade could result in the team acquiring a center, which could then push Ryan Strome out the door.
We’re not going to truly know what direction the offseason might be headed until that first domino falls.
As the roster currently stands, right defense is not in any way a need. If Tony DeAngelo or even Jacob Trouba is moved, though? Suddenly there’s a gaping hole on the roster with zero internal options.
All of that is to say that it’s possible to concoct a scenario where the Rangers could turn to Justin Schultz. The former top prospect struggled at the start of his career in Edmonton. The Penguins bought low on him in 2016 and, with help from Jacques Martin, he finally found his game. During the 2016-17 season, Schultz reached a career-high 51 points and produced 13 points in 21 games on the way to his second Stanley Cup with Pittsburgh.
His play fell off a cliff the past two seasons, which not-so-coincidentally aligns with Pittsburgh signing Jack Johnson and paired the two together. Publicly blasted by his GM and set to become an unrestricted free agent, Schultz will almost certainly play elsewhere next season.
Now 30, Schultz may not be the elite offensive producer he once was, but it’s not hard to envision Martin helping him rediscover his game in a different environment and without a black hole as his defensive partner. If the term is kept to three-or-fewer years with a cap hit in the $3M range, Schultz could provide offense on the right side at a cheaper price, freeing up cap space for the Rangers to invest elsewhere