The Penguins weren’t shy about their plans for this offseason.
They were going to find help in the top two lines, fielding some actual NHL talent for centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. They’d pay to get it, and pick up the savings by going with a younger, most affordable defense group.
That’s what they said, as far back as April. Apparently, they meant every word of it.
Having spent large to acquire Phil Kessel just over a week ago, the Penguins took another step toward shoring up the defense Thursday, re-signing RFA defenseman Brian Dumoulin to a two-year, $1.6 million contract.
Dumoulin first saw NHL action with Pittsburgh during the 2013-14 campaign, when he played six games, notching his first NHL point with an assist on Dec. 16, 2013 against Toronto.
During Dumoulin’s three seasons with WBS, the team has allowed the fewest goals in the AHL all three years. During that span, Dumoulin has tallied 78 points (15G-63A) in 188 regular-season contests. He’s added 23 points (5G-18A) in 38 playoff games.
In and of itself, the deal is not big news. Plenty of teams lock up arbitration-eligible RFA’s between now and the arbitration deadline — especially those with fewer than 30 games of NHL experience. Dumoulin looks like a good player to have in the fold. He was pressed into postseason service with injuries keeping Derrick Pouliot, Olli Maatta, Kris Letang and Christian Ehrhoff out of action, and played admirably.
As a pairing, he and former Penguin Taylor Chorney were on the ice for no goals against in five games against the Rangers. The top pairing in AHL-affiliate Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, Chorney and Dumoulin played more like a second pair for the Penguins in that series, injured as the rest of the group was.
It was an impressive postseason debut for Dumoulin, who had otherwise experienced a rough transition to the NHL. But, with not much else to lean on in the way of NHL experience, Dumoulin accepted a deal that even a capped-out club like the Penguins could live with.
Dumoulin is waiver eligible this season, which no doubt helped him land a one-way deal with the Penguins. Exposing him to waivers would be a total non-starter. After moving Scott Harrington in the Kessel deal and having already parted with Simon Despres, Robert Bortuzzo and Philip Samuelsson last season, the team couldn’t take any chances with what remains of its prospect defensemen.
That depth chart is one reason Dumoulin will get his chance at a regular spot this year. Most importantly, however, is his new salary — one which fits perfectly in at the bottom of a very expensive roster.
The Penguins made their intentions clear from the outset of the year — they were going to upgrade the forwards, and the savings would come from the blue line. Veteran Paul Martin was let to walk in free agency, and while still-dangling UFA Ehrhoff has yet to sign anywhere, it won’t be Pittsburgh.
From GM Jim Rutherford (in April),
“We’d like to get more speed in our lineup,” [Rutherford] said. “We would like to get some of these younger players started. Some of that young energy will help.”
“They’ve come of age and their development has come along nicely,” Rutherford said. “At some point we have to put these defensemen in or their development will go the other way. We have very good young defensemen that have shown signs that they’re ready to play.”
After losing Martin, Ehrhoff and even Chorney to free agency, the group is most definitely younger. As presently constructed, only Ben Lovejoy and Rob Scuderi are on the wrong side of 30. It’s a group that should go a long way toward helping the Penguins draw back from their place among the NHL’s oldest rosters.
And, as planned, the group has become much, much cheaper.
In order of cap hits, the Penguins’ top-eight falls in this fashion:
- Kris Letang ($7.25m)
- Rob Scuderi ($3.375m)
- Ian Cole ($2.1m)
- Ben Lovejoy ($1.1m)
- Olli Maatta ($894k)
- Derrick Pouliot ($863k)
- Brian Dumoulin ($600k)
- Tim Erixon ($600k)
Of that group, only Pouliot and Maatta are on two-way (waiver ineligible) deals. The group counts some $16.98 million against the team’s total cap obligation, or 23 percent of a capped-out payroll.
It’s a big change for a group that included some big salaries in the last few years, including Brooks Orpik ($5+ million), Martin ($5 million) and Ehrhoff ($4 million). It also ranks among the cheapest blue lines in the NHL. Other than the Penguins, the only Metropolitan team with just one defenseman earning more than $4 million is the New Jersey Devils.
If that’s a cheap group, it’s an inexperienced one. Only Letang, Scuderi, Lovejoy and Cole have any meaningful NHL service time, and the team must certainly still be actively looking for a way to part with Scuderi.
It’s a risk, but one the team had no choice but to take. Whether that meant accepting a younger group in order to deal for Kessel, or simply to make good on all those years of prioritizing defense in the draft, this kind of youth movement on the blue line line was long in the making.
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