By Brian Metzer
With the Free Agent Frenzy set to kick off in less than 24 hours, the Pittsburgh Penguins continue to get their ducks in a row as they prepare to be big players on hockey’s biggest holiday. First they agreed to terms with their captain, Sidney Crosby, on what amounts to a lifetime contract that will keep the face of their franchise in town through the 2025 season at a very manageable AAV of $8.7 million – the same AAV that the team has enjoyed over the life of his previous contract.
With Crosby set to ink his deal on Sunday, the team turned their attentions to a couple of other players that they were very interested in keeping in house –defenseman Matt Niskanen and goaltender Brad Thiessen.
News broke this morning that the team had agreed to terms with Thiessen, who has been the starting goaltender in Wilkes Barre Scranton for the last two seasons. His deal is a two-way contract that will pay him $525,000 at the NHL level.
Thiessen, 26, split the 2011-12 season between Pittsburgh and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the American Hockey League (AHL). He made his NHL debut on Feb. 26 against Columbus, stopping 22 of 24 shots to earn his first NHL win. In five NHL games, Thiessen posted a 3-1 record.
The 6-foot, 180-pound Thiessen had a career year with WBS in 2010-11, leading the AHL and establishing WBS franchise records with 35 victories and seven shutouts in 46 games. Thiessen’s 35-8-1 record, 1.94 goals-against average and a .922 save percentage, earned him the Aldege “Baz” Bastien Memorial Award as the AHL’s top goaltender that season. Thiessen and his crease partner, John Curry, shared the Harry “Hap” Holmes Memorial Award as the duo that allowed the fewest regular-season goals (183) in the AHL.
Then the team locked up Niskanen on a two year deal that has an AAV of $2.3 million per season. The young rearguard, who arrived in town alongside James Neal in the Alex Goligoski trade, emerged as a very effective two-way performer last season, especially while Kris Letang was out of the line-up.
In his first full season with the Penguins, Niskanen notched 21 points (4G-17A) and a plus-9 rating in 75 regular-season games. He topped the 20-point mark for the first time since 2008-09 with Dallas, while his plus-9 rating was the second-highest total of his career (plus-22 in ‘07-08). Niskanen added three points (1G-2A) in four playoff games.
The Penguins, who are expected to be players for some of the bigger names available in free agency such as defenseman Ryan Suter and forward Zach Parise, now have 19 players locked up for next season for a total cap hit of $57,933,333, leaving them $12,266,667 to head into negotiations with.
Though it is thought that the Penguins are still taking calls on defenseman Paul Martin, he joins Brooks Orpik, Kris Letang, Niskanen, Ben Lovejoy and Deryk Engelland as defensemen on one-way deals for next season.
The 11 forwards who are under contract are led by Crosby and include Evgeni Malkin, James Neal, Chris Kunitz, Brandon Sutter, Tyler Kennedy, Matt Cooke, Pascal Dupuis, Craig Adams, Dustin Jeffrey and Joe Vitale.
Sunday should be an interesting day in Penguins history, as this is by far the most latitude Ray Shero has had heading into a free agency period during his tenure. Though the depth in the UFA pool isn’t great, there are some nice gems that could be had even if he misses out on one or both of the big fish.
As mentioned above, the free agent frenzy kicks off tomorrow, Sunday 7/1/12 at noon. Strap in, as it is going to be an exciting ride.