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The Penguins’ Kyle Dubas era is off to a dubious start in NHL free agency

When word surfaced regarding how much money and how many years the Pittsburgh Penguins handed to “free agent” goalie Tristan Jarry, some joked that Ron Hextall must have broken into new GM Kyle Dubas’s office. The Jarry deal, and the Penguins’ bewildering general direction, was truly that jarring.

While it would be absurd to count out Dubas and the Penguins altogether, it’s also true that every dollar and every year matters when you’re trying to maximize the twilight years of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang.

So far? Not so inspiring.

Kyle Dubas is in the middle of his first offseason with the Penguins.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Kyle Dubas is in the middle of his first offseason with the Penguins. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Rumors of Penguins shooting for Erik Karlsson trade

As with any article posted early in free agency, there’s time for the picture to change. That may be especially true for the Penguins, as there are plenty of rumors about Pittsburgh hunting for an Erik Karlsson trade.

Karlsson, 33, is in control of his fate with a no-movement clause, and at full freight ($11.5-million cap hit for the next four seasons) his contract has its own no-movement clause. The reigning Norris Trophy winner wants to win, though, and the Sharks may be willing to eat quite a bit of that cap hit, so maybe the Penguins can indeed swing a Karlsson trade.

On one hand, Karlsson finishing his astounding career with other Hall of Famers would be astonishingly fun. But when you get down to the gritty details, it’s fair to wonder if Mike Sullivan’s system would be that good of a fit, if Karlsson’s defensive weaknesses negate most of his offense, and how a banged-up player might age.

But either way, it’s a massive asterisk hanging over the Penguins’ offseason. Such a trade could move out picks, young players and maybe even ease some concerns by getting Mikael Granlund’s problem ($5-million AAV for two years) off the books.

The surprising return of Jarry

In bringing back Jarry, the Penguins gave the 28-year-old goalie more money ($5.375-million AAV) and more years (five) than anyone reasonably expected.

What would a Jarry contract have looked like if the Penguins didn’t wait until he hit the open market? It’s hard to believe they couldn’t have squeezed out a better deal (either relaxing term, money or both) if they did so earlier. Maybe that ship sailed by the time Dubas took over, but teams — including the Penguins — often enjoy reasonably sweet deals when they bring a player back. This deal is largely bitter.

Just about any bloated free agent deal resembles overpaying for something during the holidays because you waited until the last minute. One way or another, it sure feels like the Penguins bumbled their way into a surcharge here.

While there are reasonable arguments for Jarry having his moments, it seems wrong to deem this an “all-in” move. The sheer cost of the contract also removes some of the “safety,” even if you gain the certainty of continuity behind the same coach’s system.

The Penguins paid up to keep Tristan Jarry in Pittsburgh.  (Photo by Jeanine Leech/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The Penguins paid up to keep Tristan Jarry in Pittsburgh. (Photo by Jeanine Leech/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

If the Penguins are going all-out to maximize the last great years of Crosby & Co., was there at least some discussion of trading for Connor Hellebuyck? As much as people fixate on what a potential extension would cost, you wouldn’t necessarily be required to make that investment, or you could broach the subject later. Hellebuyck’s last year at a bargain $6.167-million cap hit, and if any team could sell itself on treating him as a big-swing “rental” it would be the Penguins.

Recall that Dubas forked over a mammoth offer to trade for Ryan O’Reilly (plus Noel Acciari), and that “rental” was far shorter.

Between pushing harder for a Hellebuyck trade or doing something bold like tendering Jeremy Swayman an offer sheet, it’s not as though the Penguins had no other choice but to sign Jarry to a scary-looking contract. They could’ve even gone the really cheap route with just Alex Nedeljkovic and Casey DeSmith, too.

Instead, they gambled on Jarry, even handing him a no-movement clause. Maybe Dubas will end up looking brilliant — to be fair, Jarry has had his moments — but he also hasn’t earned the greatest track record with goalies in free agency.

Less flexibility, less dynamic help?

If there’s a theme with the bigger Penguins moves, it’s the feeling that the team didn’t enjoy discounts despite giving out generous terms. Jarry is the most glaring example, yet handing Ryan Graves six years on a deal that still costs $4.5 million per year is very uninspiring.

Some metrics grade Graves out better than others, but few would expect the 28-year-old defenseman to boost Pittsburgh much offensively. For all the money the Penguins spent, they’re still heaping a ton of the burden (especially scoring-wise) on a 35-year-old Crosby and 36-year-old Malkin.

There’s work around the margins that leaves something to be desired.

Reilly Smith is a nice addition, even at 32, costing the Penguins only a third-round pick. That said, with Jake Guentzel needing a new deal after next season, I wonder if the Penguins cringed at the departing Jason Zucker costing the Coyotes a mere $5.3 million for a single season. This Evolving Hockey three-year RAPM comparison is one way to capture their similar impacts:

Giving a 34-year-old Lars Eller two years and a $2.45-million AAV isn’t the end of the world. Even so, it must have stung analytics-minded Penguins fans to see former Pittsburgh forward Evan Rodrigues sign with the Panthers for a cap hit not that far off from Eller’s.

If the Penguins wanted an even cheaper option who leans more towards Eller’s all-defense profile, they probably could have brought back Zach Aston-Reese or any number of specialists for peanuts.

Dubas has time to prove himself, but the Penguins’ window isn’t exactly wide open

Between Hextall’s going-away present of the Granlund contract and Dubas’s frenetic early free-agent spending, the Penguins went from having an unusual amount of salary cap space to being tight to the cap.

Scroll through their CapFriendly page and you’ll see a lot of forwards over 30, and an array of no-trade clauses, including some doled out by Dubas.

It’s possible things will look better in the future, particularly if a Karlsson trade fixes multiple problems at once.

That said, while there are legitimate arguments against Dubas being “an analytics GM,” he’s an executive who’s shown some ingenuity, including snatching up gems in free agency like a then-cheap Michael Bunting in 2021.

With a real opportunity to put the Penguins back on the right path, Dubas instead seemingly paid a premium to keep this vehicle idling in neutral. Like past GMs, maybe Crosby, Malkin and a few others will do enough to bail him out anyway.