On the surface, the Penguins’ salary cap situation might not seem daunting.
Ron Hextall has $23.2 million to play with this summer, more than predecessors Jim Rutherford and Ray Shero typically enjoyed.
Dig a little deeper and you’ll realize $23.2 million isn’t so much after all. Rutherford and Shero never had this crop of free agents to retain; they never had to wonder if players like Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang were too old for long-term deals, and they weren’t managing the Penguins at this kind of crossroads.
The Rust contract is all the evidence you need to have that the Penguins have no interest in a rebuild.
— Josh Yohe (@JoshYohe_PGH) May 22, 2022
Hextall has already inked Bryan Rust to a team-friendly deal worth $5,125 annually over six years. That was the first step, but many remain.
Let’s take a deeper look.
The Penguins currently have 16 players on their NHL roster under contract for next season. Among these, 10 are on team-friendly deals or simply don’t have the NHL experience to command more money. Here’s what each of these players will count against the cap next season:
It would be hard to imagine Hextall moving any of them before next season. While anything is possible, these players very clearly could be making more money on the open market, or, in the cases of O’Connor and Zohorna, can fill a roster spot on the cheap.
Hextall is also dealing with six returning contracts of players who, it could be argued, did not perform well enough last season to justify their salaries. Those cap hits remain intact for next season:
The franchise icons
Hextall spoke pretty forcefully last week about his desire to retain Malkin and Letang. While his stated preference has always been to keep both, he spoke passionately about wanting them to finish their careers in Pittsburgh.
Of course, that won’t be cheap. For the better part of the past decade, Malkin and Letang have combined to cost the Penguins $16.75 million annually (Malkin at $9.5 million annually, Letang at $7.25 million annually).
The Penguins can’t reasonably be expected to employ them for the same combined price moving forward. Malkin will be 36 in July and is one year removed from major knee surgery. While he’s still a point-per-game player, he’s clearly not the skater he once was. Malkin is willing to play for less money moving forward.
Financially speaking, Letang might be the problem. The market has never been more lucrative for defensemen, and Letang is coming off a strong season. He also knows that replacing his minutes would be a very difficult chore. He’s given no indication that, like Malkin, he’d be willing to take less money. In fact, he’d like a raise.
If Malkin and Letang had the same combined cap hit moving forward, the Penguins would have 18 players under contract with only $5.5 million of cap space. They’d still need to sign a handful of players to complete their roster and, ideally, they’d like to add a veteran backup goalie, which might cost more than they’d like.
The trade candidates
Last season, the Penguins paid their blue line more than any defensive core in the NHL. While their defensemen didn’t have a bad season, the Penguins would be well served to move some contracts for the sake of their short- and long-term cap situations.
Pettersson and Marino are candidates to be moved, though it’s hard to imagine Marino being traded if Letang isn’t retained. The Penguins aren’t interested in losing both of their top right-handed defensemen. If Letang returns, though, moving Marino would appear to be in play because of his contract.
Pettersson struggled in 2021-22. He played very well in the season’s first half but faded down the stretch, his play in front of his own net particularly concerning. Given that he doesn’t provide much offense, Pettersson’s contract isn’t ideal.
Then there’s Dumoulin. One of the most steady players in franchise history looked wobbly at best this season. Maybe it was his health. Maybe it was just a bad year. Maybe it was simply an off year. Perhaps.
Given the Penguins’ depth on the left side and their cap issues, moving Dumoulin could make considerable sense. Plus, at some point, the Penguins need to start making room for one of their few prospects who projects as an NHL player.
Promotions from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton
Pierre-Olivier Joseph is ready to play in the NHL. He’s played in 136 American Hockey League games, 142 if you count the postseason. Joseph hasn’t looked the least bit out of place in 20 NHL appearances. He turns 23 in July.
A restricted free agent, Joseph will need a new deal, but it won’t be expensive. If they slide him into the left side of their defensive core and trade either Pettersson or Dumoulin, the Penguins will have saved around $3 million in cap space that can be allocated to goaltending or forwards. Plus, they’ll have gotten a bit younger, which they could use.
Additionally, they’ll have added an offensive-minded defenseman in place of a player — Dumoulin or Pettersson — who adds very little in that category. The best NHL teams suddenly showcase a roster full of defensemen who are productive offensively. The game is changing. Joseph can be of assistance.
Others in Wilkes-Barre could be promoted next season. Samuel Poulin, the team’s first-round pick in 2019, should be ready for NHL action. He’s disappointed in a couple of NHL training camps and produced a modest 16 goals in 72 AHL games last season. However, the power forward was much better in the season’s second half and would be an affordable, bottom-six option next season.
Others who could receive NHL playing time next season: Nathan Legare, Valtteri Puustinen and Alexander Nylander, a former first-round pick who will require a new contract.
To retain, or not to retain?
Besides Letang and Malkin, the Penguins have other players in limbo. Whether they return may well depend on whether Letang and Malkin return and, if they do, for how much money.
Kasperi Kapanen and Danton Heinen are restricted free agents. Kapanen was a disaster this season, but some in the Penguins organization remain enamored with his physical talent. Heinen had a career year on an inexpensive contract. The Penguins would like to bring him back, but they know he won’t come as cheap next season.
Rickard Rakell and Evan Rodrigues are the unrestricted free agents of note not named Letang or Malkin. The Penguins loved what Rakell brought to the lineup and very much would like to bring him back. However, the finances will be difficult. His cap hit has been a smidge under $4 million for the past six seasons, and he’s likely due for at least a modest raise. Rakell seems likely to come back only if either Letang or Malkin sign elsewhere, unless, of course, the Penguins are able to shed some salary between now and the start of free agency on July 13.
Rodrigues is valuable in that he can play center or wing, kill penalties, play on the power play and score 20 goals. He’s also one of the most streaky players in franchise history and was largely a no-show during the season’s second half.
How much money do you give a guy like that? It’s a difficult question to answer, but Hextall is quickly learning all about difficult answers to difficult questions.
It’s all about Hextall making sensible moves moving forward. Would it be ideal for Malkin and Letang to return? Safe. They can still play at a high level. However, Hextall can’t simply give the duo what it wants. It’s not that simple. The Penguins require help on the bottom six, help on the blue line, a more durable backup goaltender and a general injection of youthful energy.
The Penguins, like Malkin and Letang, are still very good. But like the aging superstars, the Penguins aren’t quite as good as they once were. If Malkin commands anything more than $7 million annually, it wouldn’t be good business to bring him back. If Letang demands anything more than $7.5 million annually, it wouldn’t be good business, either. They could probably get more on the open market, but it doesn’t matter. This isn’t about the open market. It’s about making smart decisions for the Penguins and shaping the roster in a fashion that helps the Penguins go from an array of first-round exits to making another Stanley Cup run.
If the Penguins can bring them back for a combined reduction of $2.5 million or $3 million, they should do so. They also badly need to trade one of the $4 million players off their blue line. Do that, and suddenly they have the money necessary to get better in goal and to get better on the bottom six, two areas that have held them back for too long.
(Photos: Charles LeClaire/USA Today)