Penguins sign Blueger, but expansion draft mysteries remain

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After Wednesday, it’s clear that the Penguins won’t lose Teddy Blueger to the free-agent market. We also now know the terms of Blueger’s next contract, as the Penguins confirmed it’s a two-year deal with a $2.2M AAV.

Logically speaking, signing Blueger indicates that the Penguins plan to protect him during the Seattle Kraken expansion draft. That doesn’t necessarily make it a guarantee, but it would be a strange course of actions to pull a sign-and-expose. That said, if the Penguins still exposed Blueger to the expansion draft, it’s unclear if that $2.2M price tag would scare the Kraken away. (Can you strike fear into a Kraken? Allow me to ask my neighborhood funny-haired pirate.)

Let’s quickly review Blueger, 26, for what he brings to the Penguins. Then we’ll ponder the Penguins’ possible protection plans for that looming Seattle Kraken expansion draft.

Blueger brings the defense for Penguins

If you’ve spent any time in analytics circles, you’ll know that Blueger forms a “darling” line with Zach-Aston Reese and Brandon Tanev.

You’ll need to dig deeper than the simplest counting stats (22 points in each of the last two seasons) to see Blueger’s value.

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… Although maybe the Penguins forecast more potential for offense in a heightened role?

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Most realistically, the Penguins hope that Blueger continues to excel at limiting the opposition. For a cap-challenged team, $2.2M might feel a little pricey for a supporting cast member. Consider Blueger a high-quality character actor who makes the most of their scenes, though.

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With Blueger signed, Penguins face some serious expansion draft protection debates

The Blueger signing only accomplishes so much when it comes to forecasting the Penguins’ expansion draft plans, though.

Again, there’s at least the outside chance that the Penguins would roll the dice and expose Blueger anyway. It just sounds rather unlikely.

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Who the Penguins are almost certain to protect

From the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, to Pensburgh, to Evolving Hockey, virtually every outlet indicates that the Penguins will go with the 7 (forwards) – 3 (defensemen) – 1 (goalie) expansion draft protection scheme. The other option would be one goalie plus any combination of eight skaters, with the most likely combo being four forwards and four defensemen.

Let’s look at the locks and near-locks.

Penguins forwards

  • Sidney Crosby is automatically protected because of his no-movement clause.

  • Evgeni Malkin also has a NMC. Both Crosby and Malkin would’ve been protected anyway, naturally.

  • Jake Guentzel‘s quietly one of the best values in hockey. He’s a no-brainer.

  • Bryan Rust is a no-brainer, too.

  • Perhaps Teddy Blueger belongs here after this signing?

So, the Penguins need to choose two other forwards to protect (or three, if they expose Blueger despite signing him).

[NHL Offseason Vibe Check: The Kraken Countdown]

Two Penguins defensemen

  • Like Crosby and Malkin, Kris Letang has an NMC. For the occasional Letang trade rumors, they’d be silly to let him walk for nothing.

  • Assume that Brian Dumoulin isn’t going anywhere, either.

That leaves the Penguins with one other defenseman to choose (barring an unlikely 8-1-1 configuration).

One goalie

  • Would the Penguins expose Tristan Jarry after that brutal Islanders series? They’d either protect Jarry or backup Casey DeSmith.

Who would round out other protected forwards?

It’s pretty fascinating to leaf through the different possibilities regarding who the Penguins might protect for the expansion draft.

We’ve covered Crosby, Malkin, Guentzel, and Rust as four of the seven forwards. The Penguins signing Blueger points heavily toward him being the fifth protected forward.

Here are considerations for who might rank among the other two (or three).

  • Jeff Carter: He was a smash success for the Penguins after a slightly surprising trade deadline move. That impact might make it tough to risk exposing him to the Kraken.

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That said, the Penguins might not protect Carter under the assumption the Kraken wouldn’t select him. After all, Carter is 36. Later in his Kings days, he also threatened to retire if traded. Obviously, he relented with the Penguins, but would he reignite that threat if sent to an expansion team? That might be too rich for Seattle’s blood.

  • Jared McCann: The 25-year-old’s been a nice find for the Penguins, and carries a cap hit just under $3M. He’s well-liked, but maybe would be deemed inessential among these tough cuts?

  • Kasperi Kapanen: For a while, it seemed like Kapanen might not pan out. Then he really clicked in Pittsburgh, as the 24-year-old used his speed to really flourish. The Penguins probably don’t want to lose Kapanen for nothing forking over a first-rounder to land Kapanen in August 2020. At least some wonder if Kapanen could be an odd forward out, though.

  • Jason Zucker: Speaking of players the Penguins give up a lot to trade for, Zucker also cost the Penguins a pretty penny. His $5.5M cap hit through 2022-23 and generally clunky fit might be enough for the Penguins to expose Zucker, even if it might sting.

  • Brandon Tanev: In the list above, there’s a range of ages (Carter to Zucker to Kapanen). The cap hits vary a bit, too. Tanev stands out among these forward choices because of the challenges his contract creates.

The 29-year-old’s been a gem for the Penguins, but a costly jewel. His $3.5M AAV runs through 2024-25, potentially making him a luxury Pittsburgh may deem expendable.

What should the Penguins do?

Let’s say the Penguins indeed make Blueger the fifth protected forward among Crosby, Malkin, Guentzel, and Rust.

Perhaps the Penguins would expose Zucker, Tanev, and Carter to the expansion draft, assuming that the deals would be too rich? (Or maybe they’d want to receive some extra cap space, particularly with Zucker or Tanev?)

Those are tough calls. It’s also not totally clear if the Penguins will protect Mike Matheson or Marcus Pettersson. Maybe they’d even bribe the Kraken to take a problem contract? That would remove some intrigue, though it would possibly come at a steep price.

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During the Kraken expansion draft and beyond, it seems like this could be a challenging offseason for the Penguins. Maybe they’ll surprise us with some of their choices and moves?

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Penguins sign Blueger, but expansion draft mysteries remain originally appeared on NBCSports.com