Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Ray Shero has declined to tender a qualifying offer to restricted free agent Tyler Kennedy, and if the Penguins fail to reach an agreement with Kennedy before Friday, he'll be able to test the open market. This leaves Shero with, essentially, three days to answer the question that Penguins fans have been pondering for the past two months: Just how much is Tyler Kennedy worth to the Penguins?
In 80 regular season games this past season, Tyler Kennedy posted 21 goals and 24 assists, finishing third on the team in goals and fourth in total points. Furthermore, he was largely (and correctly) credited as one of the few Penguins who noticeably upped his production following the midseason injuries to Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, helping the Pens seal a No. 4 playoff seed (en route to a seven-game, first-round playoff loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning) that looks, in retrospect, like a legitimate accomplishment.
However, in the emotionless, Vulcan-like world that is NHL Salary Cap finagling, some perspective is always in order. While both of these frequently-cited marks in Kennedy's favor are factually true, in that he did have a career year at the age of 24 and picked up the Pens' offensive slack at a time when they needed it the most, both of these compliments also paint a misleading picture with regard to Kennedy's value to the Penguins in 2011-12 and beyond.
First, Kennedy's career year: In Kennedy's previous two seasons, he scored 15 goals in 67 games and 13 goals in 64 games, prior to this year's high-water mark of 21 in 80. However, in those other seasons, Kennedy spent almost no time on the Penguins' power play (likely due to some fully-healthy individuals with high jersey numbers), notching zero power play goals in 2008-09 and one in 2009-10, before suddenly adding seven power play goals (and seven power play assists) in 2010-2011. A very significant portion of Kennedy's so-called career year can be directly attributed to his finally getting a chance to play with the man advantage, in addition to simply playing more games that he did the prior two seasons.
Furthermore, Kennedy's specific game translates particularly well to the power play. A vast number of his goals were scored coming off the left circle or jamming rebounds in from the left side of the crease, an opportunity only afforded him when he plays left wing on the power play as opposed to right wing during even situations (a better fit for breakouts and neutral-zone puck possession). While we certainly shouldn't fail to credit Kennedy for taking advantage of these opportunities, his career statistical season was largely attributable to his increased playing time on the power play, a role which won't be as available on a theoretically-healthy 2011-12 Penguins squad.
Secondly, on Kennedy "stepping up his game" with Crosby and Malkin out: Kennedy certainly deserves credit for scoring when the Pens needed offense the most, as any of us who watched the Pens' offensive opposite-of-fireworks the last third of the season can attest. However, this compliment seems to imply that it was more difficult for Kennedy to score with Crosby and Malkin out, when in reality, the opposite was true; with Crosby and Malkin hurt, not only did Kennedy's power play time increase (as mentioned above), his overall playing time also increased from 12:35 minutes per game a year ago to 14:32 per game this season. He didn't play on a line with Crosby or Malkin to begin with, so their absence didn't really impact his 5-on-5 production at all, and with the Pens rolling three essentially indistinguishable top lines, Kennedy didn't have to constantly face the other teams' top defensive pairs in the same way that Malkin would've in Crosby's absence.
While Tyler Kennedy absolutely deserves praise for his increased production this past season, the Penguins can't afford to overvalue a couple months of play that were largely aided by increased playing time, especially when that playing time likely won't be available next season. Yes, the Penguins need secondary scoring, and yes, Kennedy notched 21 goals, but does anyone doubt that a healthy Dustin Jeffrey (an "if" to begin with, admittedly) could also score 21 goals in 80 games if he spent half the season on the power play? Or, more precisely, is there really a $2 million difference between Kennedy and Jeffrey, or Kennedy and Mark Letestu?
My suggestion: Offer Kennedy three years, $6.5 million, and if he takes it, know that you've got a solid young third-liner who can cycle, control the puck, and chip in some goals under contract until age 28. The $2 million-plus cap hit still wouldn't prevent the Pens from signing Jaromir Jagr for a year (and possibly even re-signing Pascal Dupuis), but if the number becomes a problem in the next couple seasons as more core Penguins approach free agency, it'll be an easy contract to move.
The irony is, Kennedy would actually be more valuable to a lot of other teams than he would to the Penguins; it's easy to imagine, say, the Wild or Panthers signing him for $3 million annually, playing him on the top power play unit partly out of necessity and partly to get a return on their investment, and Kennedy repaying them with a 26-goal season that'll slightly unnerve Penguin fans for letting him get away. But Kennedy isn't a 25+ goal-scorer on the 2011-12 Penguins as long as they remain somewhat healthy (just punched through my dining room table while knocking on it), and they cannot afford to pay him as one.
If Kennedy comes back, then great. If he signs elsewhere, then it'll hardly be a catastrophic loss to a team that dealt with a couple of ever-so-slightly significant injuries this past season. When someone emails me in November saying, "Can you believe Kennedy's already got 10 goals for Minnesota?", I'll just be sure to have the link to Kennedy's 2010 playoff stats to calm myself back down.