Existing somewhere beneath the surface of Sidney Crosby’s goal-scoring explosion, the breakout performance of Justin Schultz, and the drama surrounding the future of Marc-Andre Fleury, the Penguins have quietly received outstanding contributions from three young products of their farm system.
Conor Sheary debuted last year and showed off his speed and occasional scoring touch, especially in the playoffs at times, so he’s a little more of a known quantity at this point. Bryan Rust got a cup of coffee in 2014-15, but played 41 games last year for the Pens. He had glimpses of offense, mixed with a willingness to get gritty in the tough areas. Jake Guentzel was finishing up his career at the University of Nebraska-Omaha before getting a taste of the AHL at the tail end of the year.
This year, all three have dazzled on the score sheet and have made cases to be core members of this team moving forward. The best part is that all three are on dirt-cheap entry level contracts. Even when Sheary will be an RFA after this year, he won’t break the bank that severely (more on that potential contract later). Here’s the 2016-17 stats for each of them:
- Sheary — 41 games, 17 goals, 17 assists, 34 points ($667,500 salary)
- Rust — 45 games, 12 goals, 12 assists, 24 points ($640,000 salary)
- Guentzel — 11 games, 4 goals, 3 assists, 7 points ($734,167 salary)
For the combined salary of $2,041,667, the Penguins have received a total output in 97 man-games of 33 goals and 32 assists. If you were to normalize that into an 82-game season, the triumvirate would be equivalent to a player that scored 28 goals and 27 assists. That’s roughly the production that the Penguins got from Phil Kessel last year when he scored 26 goals and 33 assists in the regular season. Keep in mind that’s the average performance you’re getting from three players, all for the cost of what the Penguins are paying Eric Fehr this year ($2M).
That’s the kind of low-cost output that the Penguins have to keep generating as long as they’re going to maintain four stars (Crosby, Malkin, Kessel, Letang) on contracts all with average cap hits of $6.8M and greater. Finding these hidden gems is one thing, but to get this kind of point-scoring prowess out of them is a whole other kettle of fish.
Although I’m not convinced that Rust is a true top-6 type of player, he seems to have found a home on Crosby’s right wing. If that’s the case, the Penguins have their top-6 wingers all filled next year (including Kessel, who I think will move up to Malkin’s line next season). The infamous “Sid needs a winger” clarion call may have been answered by the 5′-8″ Sheary.
As I mentioned earlier, Sheary is a restricted free agent after the season. The Penguins will be able to negotiate a contract with him, unless some other team swoops in and offers a deal the Pens would be unable to match, in which case they’ll receive draft pick compensation. I don’t envision a scenario where they let him go, so let’s guesstimate his next deal. I’ve previously speculated that Sheary could make $2.5M/year (average cap hit) in his next deal. I tried to find a rough comparable from last year to further peg his value. Jaden Schwartz of the St. Louis Blues was a 24-year old RFA last year (same age as Sheary) and he signed a large 5 year/$26.75M deal with an average cap hit of $5.35M. However, prior to that he signed a 2 year/$4.7M deal as his first bridge contract. Schwartz’s production to that point was:
- Schwartz 2012-13 — 45 games, 7 goals, 6 assists, 13 points
- Schwartz 2013-14 — 80 games, 25 goals, 31 assists, 56 points
This led directly into his 2 year/$4.7M bridge deal. Contrast that with Sheary’s numbers leading into his potential bridge deal:
- Sheary 2015-16 — 44 games, 7 goals, 3 assists, 10 points
- Sheary 2016-17 — 41 games, 17 goals, 17 assists, 34 points (extrapolate to 75 games based on time missed — 75 games, 31 goals, 31 assists, 62 points)
The Jaden Schwartz comp is a pretty solid one for me, so a $2.35M contract could be in order. Conservatively, I’ll stick with the $2.5M estimate for inflation. With Rust and Guentzel still on their entry level deals next year at the same cap hit, this troika could make a combined $3.87M. That’s the same amount that Chris Kunitz ($3.85M) is making this year. Essentially, the Penguins are swapping out Kunitz’s one salary cap spot for three players at a high expected rate of production.
That’s how this train of winning can be sustained longer into the future. It’s the kind of deal that may enable the Penguins to re-sign an unrestricted free agent like Trevor Daley, if they so choose. Cap space is tight moving forward for the Pens, especially if the NHL doesn’t increase it substantially, so it’s important to maximize every roster spot to the fullest extent. The Penguins are getting 3 spots for the price of 1 next year, potentially.