Penguins add Johnson, Cullen for depth, veteran leadership
Hope defenseman, forward help them to third title in four seasonsby Wes Crosby / NHL.com Correspondent
After the NHL Draft, free agency and other offseason moves, NHL.com is taking a look at where each team stands. Today, the Pittsburgh Penguins:
The Pittsburgh Penguins signed free agents Jack Johnson and Matt Cullen this offseason to address areas they felt were lacking when they failed to three-peat as Stanley Cup champions.
Johnson, a 31-year-old defenseman, was given a five-year contract to add depth at that position and, along with Cullen, a 41-year-old center who got a one-year contract, overcome a lack veteran leadership.
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The Penguins, who were eliminated from the Eastern Conference Second Round in six games by the eventual Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals, cleared some NHL salary cap space by trading forward Conor Sheary and defenseman Matt Hunwick before not re-signing unrestricted free agent forward Tom Kuhnhackl.
Here is what the Penguins look like today:
Jack Johnson, D: The Penguins signed Johnson to a contract worth $3.25 million per season July 1. He could bolster the back end of the defensemen paired with Jamie Oleksiak, bumping Chad Ruhwedel from the lineup. Johnson is coming off a lackluster season with the Columbus Blue Jackets, when he scored 11 points (three goals, eight assists) in 77 games. Johnson, who was minus-6, was a healthy scratch late in the regular season and throughout an Eastern Conference First Round series against the Capitals. … Matt Cullen, F: After playng last season for the Minnesota Wild, Cullen was brought back to Pittsburgh on a $650,000 contract signed July 1. In two seasons with Pittsburgh from 2015-17, Cullen primarily played fourth-line center and scored 63 points (29 goals, 34 assists) in 154 games. He could return to that spot in the lineup, which would mean either Derrick Brassard (third-line center) or Riley Sheahan (fourth-line center) could shift to left wing. During Cullen's previous stint with Pittsburgh, he showed an ability to play wing, even on the top line next to Sidney Crosby on occasion.
Video: Penguins sign D Jack Johnson to five-year contract
Conor Sheary, F: The 26-year-old forward was traded with Hunwick to the Buffalo Sabres on June 27 for a conditional fourth-round pick in the 2019 NHL Draft. Sheary had 30 points (18 goals, 12 assists) in 79 games last season, down from 53 points (23 goals, 30 assists) in 61 games in 2016-17. ... Matt Hunwick, D: After signing a three-year contract with an average annual value of $2.25 million with the Penguins on July 1, 2017, Hunwick had 10 points (four goals, six assists) in 42 games. Chad Ruhwedel played as the sixth defenseman over Hunwick in the playoffs. ... Tom Kuhnhackl, F: A mainstay on the fourth line the previous three seasons, Kuhnhackl agreed to terms on a one-year contract with the New York Islanders on July 2. He had 39 points (11 goals, 28 assists) in 168 regular-season games with the Penguins.
On the cusp
Daniel Sprong, F: A second-round pick (No. 46) in the 2015 NHL Draft, Sprong could finally become a fixture in the lineup with Sheary gone. The 21-year-old right wing could find a role within the top six forwards, possibly with Crosby and Guentzel on the top line, if he shows he can adapt to the NHL. Sprong scored two goals in 18 games with Pittsburgh in 2015-16 and three points (two goals, one assist) in eight games last season, but was sent to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the American Hockey League because his defense was lacking. ... Zach Aston-Reese, F: Unlike Sprong, Aston-Reese mostly stuck with the Penguins, who signed him to a two-year, entry-level contract on March 14, 2017. That was until the 23-year-old rookie sustained a concussion and broken jaw against the Capitals on May 1. After scoring six points (four goals, two assists) in 16 regular-season games last season, a healthy Aston-Reese could help the forward depth.
Video: PIT@NYI: Sprong labels top corner for his second goal
What they still need
Another depth defenseman. Although Ruhwedel has been serviceable at times, relying on him during a lengthy stretch if one of the six regular defensemen is injured likely isn't ideal.
Sprong is eyeing a full-time NHL role for the first time. He's been a prolific scorer at the junior level and in the AHL with 65 points (32 goals, 33 assists) in 65 games last season for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. With Sheary and Kuhnhackl no longer on the team, there will be an opportunity for Sprong to stick on the third line with center Derick Brassard or gain top-six exposure to Evgeni Malkin (finished ranked No. 1 in Yahoo) or Sidney Crosby (12th) depending on injuries and lineup trends. The potential of the high-end assignment, coupled with his scoring ability, make Sprong an intriguing late-round pick or a primary target on the waiver wire early in the season. -- Rob Reese
Jake Guentzel -- Sidney Crosby -- Daniel Sprong
Carl Hagelin -- Evgeni Malkin -- Patric Hornqvist
Bryan Rust -- Derick Brassard -- Phil Kessel
Riley Sheahan -- Matt Cullen -- Zach Aston-Reese
Brian Dumoulin -- Kris Letang
Olli Maatta -- Justin Schultz
Jamie Oleksiak -- Jack Johnson