Can Penguins Navigate Tricky Cap Situation?
Pittsburgh re-signing Olli Maatta was never in doubt. It was a necessary step in ensuring their mid to long term strength – as shallow as that might be – along the blue line.
With the 21-year old Finn’s services secured until 2022, at a not unreasonable cap hit of $4.08 million, Penguins’ General Manager Jim Rutherford can turn his attention to Monday’s trade deadline and seek to make the club better; at least in the short term.
In the longer term, the 67-year old has some tough choices to make. The organisations cap situation is tight, their options limited.
The Pens wagon has been hitched to a handful of horses, with limited room to add the nuts and bolts that separate champions from mere contenders – but all is not lost.
If we use the Penguins current roster – as listed at General Fanager – then Pittsburgh is on the hook for $63,021,333 next season, with nine forwards (not including Pascal Dupuis, who will remain on the LTIR), six defencemen and one goaltender signed and one portion of retained salary still to account for.
If we assume Matt Murray replaces pending UFA Jeff Zatkoff as the clubs backup goaltender, their cap hit jumps to $63.64 million with somewhere in the region of nine skaters to sign (based on a roster of 24 – this can of course move slightly).
Can the Penguins do it? Yes, though it is likely to be a squeeze.
Previous estimates suggested the NHL salary cap could rise by approximately $3 million next season, taking it to around $74.4 million. Though this may be curbed by the fall in the value of the Canadian Dollar, we’ll assume that the salary cap does settle at $74.4 million for next season – leaving Pittsburgh with around $10.8 million to spend.
Of their current line up, Kevin Porter, Matt Cullen, Ben Lovejoy and Jeff Zatkoff are set to become unrestricted free agents.
We’ve already replaced Zatkoff with Murray, and Lovejoy is not currently in the lineup, so no great panic at the back end.
39-year old Cullen is filling in on the second line while Evgeni Malkin battles injury, and so could be considered expendable (and might retire anyway).
With Eric Fehr and Nick Bonino presumably healthy again by next season, Porter could also be seen as a luxury the club no longer needs – especially if Oskar Sundqvist can establish himself; though the 21-year old Swede does cost marginally more than Porter against the cap.
But, in theory, Pittsburgh is set down the middle and one of Bonino, Fehr or Sundqvist could be deployed on the wing – so for arguments sake lets say Fehr centres a line with Sundqvist and Conor Sheary, who is signed through to 2017.
This leaves Bonino on the clubs fourth line, but wingerless, and the Pens cap hit at $64.75 million when taking in to account Sundqvist’s promotion.
As we’re speaking hypothetically, lets say Daniel Sprong gets another look on Bonino’s wing – taking the clubs cap commitments to around $65.5 million in simplified terms.
On paper, this doesn’t seem unreasonable – of the clubs ‘required’ 18 skaters the Penguins would be just one winger short with $8.9 million breathing space and a line up that reads something like this:
Kunitz – Crosby – Hornqvist
Hagelin – Malkin – Kessel
Sundqvist – Fehr – Sheary
Bonino – Sheary
Letang – Maattaa
Daley – Dumoulin
Pouliot – Cole
Fleury – Murray
But filling the depth chart is where Pittsburgh may start to feel the pinch.
Winger Beau Bennett is a restricted free agent, as are Tom Kuhnhackl, Scott Wilson and Bryan Rust. All four have seen action this season, further highlighting the need for sufficient coverage in the event of injury in today’s NHL – and given Pittsburgh’s history of injuries, one can only assume they will, at some point, need cover at some point next season.
The jury is also out on whether Sergei Plotnikov, another restricted free agent this summer, will be re-signed. Assuming the Russian winger does not return, it’s another hole to fill at the bottom end of the Pens depth chart.
Whatever the 25-year old’s decision, for Pittsburgh to re-sign all five, or replace them with players on equivalent deals, it’s another $3.6 million eaten up before we even consider what happens if there is an injury along the blue line.
Again, this isn’t an impossible situation. Simply based on the rudimentary maths outlined above the Penguins would still have $5.3 million in cap space with which to find cover at the back; but it’s still uncomfortably tight for a lot of people. And if the cap does not rise by $3 million, the problem is further compounded.
On the flip side, this is a team largely built to ‘win now’. The teams biggest names are all late-20s, and as a result worrying about the high value, long term deals they are signed to is a problem for tomorrow.
Given that Chicago managed to juggle enough pieces to coral Andrew Ladd out of Winnipeg, Pittsburgh may also take heart that there is always someone out there willing to do a deal if the situation is right. They are not entirely hamstrung, it’s just a little uncomfortable.
But again, this is a team almost entirely about the here and now. Making the most of two of the games most talented centres and one of the games best offensive D men before they decline.
Even Rutherford is only in it for the short term.
And while there does look to be a point at which Pittsburgh may lament spending big on a small number of players, but it’ll be someone elses problem by then. Winning absolves all sins. And the Pens are in it win it.
Whether they actually can build a winner remains to be seen. But, with a little luck, they’ve still got the room to do so – if the club’s management is smart.