When the Pittsburgh Penguins traded James Neal to the Nashville Predators in exchange for Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling, there was an immediate need for a goal-scoring winger to play alongside Evgeni Malkin. Neal was the Robin to Malkin’s Batman for the last three seasons, and their production on Pittsburgh’s second line was a big reason for the Penguins’ consistent success.
Only a few days ago, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review ranked Nikolai Kulemin as the most sought after free agent for the Penguins. Kulemin, who had 20 points for the Toronto Maple Leafs last season, is good friends with Malkin and the two have played together in the KHL. Kulemin’s 20 points were mainly the result of a lackluster system and don’t reflect his raw talent. He scored 30 goals back in 2011 but has steadily declined in points each year.
Kulemin would have been a great fit in Pittsburgh, but he ended up signing a four-year deal with the New York Islanders worth $16.75 million. While I’m sure the move upset Malkin, the Penguins shouldn’t worry about not signing Kulemin and will be just fine without him.
First off, the Islanders overpaid him. There was no chance the Penguins were going to give a player who has failed to reach the 30-point mark in each of the last three seasons that kind of cash. If that’s the money that Kulemin was asking from the get-go, then Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford likely shoved his name under the rug immediately. Due to the Penguins having very little wiggle room when it comes to the $69 million salary cap, Rutherford has been frugal with the amount of money that he’ll give to free agents.
Secondly, Penguins fans are underestimating the ability of Hornqvist, who will step into Neal’s spot and play alongside Malkin. Hornqvist is at the ripe age of 27 and recorded 53 points last season without the help of an NHL superstar. With Malkin on his line, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Hornqvist hit the 65-point mark next season, and if he can develop his game on the power play, Pens fans will forget about Neal real quick.
Finally, just because Rutherford doesn’t make a move during the free agency period doesn’t mean that he won’t down the road. Like former GM Ray Shero, Rutherford is known to make moves as the season goes on and at the trade deadline. The Penguins could likely trade Rob Scuderi, or even Kris Letang, at some point during the season if no one steps up on the second line.
If there is any player on the current roster who can step up and play alongside Malkin and Hornqvist, it’s Beau Bennett, who has experience playing on a line with both Malkin and Sidney Crosby. Of course, it’s all about redeveloping chemistry, but Bennett has the skill level to help the second line produce.
It would have been nice to see Malkin reunited with one of his countrymen, and the Islanders acquired a solid forward in Kulemin. But the Penguins were never going to commit that much money to an average talent. So Pens fans, don’t worry; they’ll be fine up front.
Shane Darrow is an NHL writer for Rant Sports. You can follow him on Twitter @ShaneDarrow