AP Hockey Writer
After celebrating a Stanley Cup championship for a second consecutive season, general manager Jim Rutherford told the Penguins’ pending free agents to test the market and report back if they want to return.
There’s not much room at the inn and it turns out that the Penguins will look very different as they try for a three-peat next season. As free agency opened Saturday, Pittsburgh signed defenseman Matt Hunwick and goaltender Antti Niemi but lost winger Chris Kunitz, center Nick Bonino and defensemen Trevor Daley and Ron Hainsey.
Arguably the Penguins most important move came late in the day when the re-signed restricted free agent defenseman Justin Schultz to a $16.5 million, three-year deal with an annual cap hit of $5.5 million. Rutherford said locking up Schultz was a priority.
Schultz is sticking around, but Bonino saw change coming with veteran goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury taken in the expansion draft by Vegas and 40-year-old center Matt Cullen mulling retirement.
“It’s tough leaving the Penguins, for sure, but it seems like a lot of the guys I was really close with – whether it was Cully, Kuni, Flower, Dales – guys like that are kind of going their own way,” said Bonino, who signed a $16.4 million, four-year deal with the Nashville Predators.
Hunwick got a three-year deal worth $6.75 million for an annual cap hit of $2.25 million, while Niemi signed a one-year deal at $700,000. Hunwick, 32, will help replace Daley as a right-shooting defenseman and Niemi will back up Matt Murray.
Kunitz signed a one-year deal worth $2 million with incentives from Tampa Bay, Daley left for a $9.5 million, three-year deal in Detroit and Hainsey for a $6 million, two-year deal in Toronto.
Daley said as much as he enjoyed his time in Pittsburgh, he was excited when the Red Wings reached out to him and expressed an interest in having him be a key part of their efforts to get back to the playoffs. He called joining Detroit “a no-brainer.”
Hunwick spent the past two seasons with the Toronto Maple Leafs and is a veteran of 479 NHL games. Niemi, who won the Stanley Cup with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2010, had been with the Dallas Stars before they bought out the final year of his contract.
Rutherford said the Penguins, who still need to sign restricted free agent defenseman Brian Dumoulin and forwards Conor Sheary and Josh Archibald, aren’t in a salary-cap crunch this offseason.
“This is probably the best shape we’ve been in in a few years at this point in time,” Rutherford said, “so we’ll be able to add another player and still end up under the cap, which would be a good place for us to be going into the season with that flexibility going forward.”
With Bonino gone, Pittsburgh is still looking for a third center to play behind Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, a need Rutherford expects to fill with a trade.
The Penguins will also be counting on young forwards like Jake Guentzel, Sheary, Scott Wilson, Carter Rowney and others with Kunitz gone after winning the Cup three times in his nine years in Pittsburgh.
“To be able to win three Cups is something that the organization has strived for when you have those elite centermen and All-Star goalies,” Kunitz said by phone. “We’ve had a great run here the last two years and that makes the transition pretty hard because of all the success you have, but knowing that it’s time to move on and giving ourselves a chance to go out and win another Stanley Cup.”
NOTE: The Penguins signed defenseman Chris Summers and forward Greg McKegg to two-year, two-way deals with an annual cap hit of $650,000 and defensemen Jarred Tinordi and Zach Trotman to $650,000, one-year two-way deals. They re-signed forward Tom Sestito and defenseman Frank Corrado to one-year, two-way deals worth $650,000 in the NHL and goaltender Casey Smith to a two-year, two-way deal at the same value.
AP freelance writer Dan Scifo in Pittsburgh contributed.
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