The Upcoming Salary Cap Situation by @ExcitedBobErrey - PensInitiative | Pittsburgh Penguins Blog | Rumors | News

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Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Upcoming Salary Cap Situation by @ExcitedBobErrey

With all the hype and buildup surrounding the Pittsburgh Penguins at the trade deadline, mostly surrounding Ryan Kesler, it's understandable to feel a bit let down at first once the dust settled. Going into the day dreaming of a player like Kesler, Matt Moulson, or Alex Hemsky finding their way to Pittsburgh, it certainly seemed that much of the fanbase was anticipating Ray Shero to make a big splash and fix the team's weaknesses. At the end of the day, he added Marcel Goc and Lee Stempniak at the cost of two 3rd round picks and a 5th round pick.

While it's likely that Vancouver's ownership prevented Shero from being able to land the big deal he was working on, he still did an excellent job of improving this year's team for the postseason while not dooming the 2014-15 Pens in the process.  Easily the biggest hole in the roster this season was the lack of forward depth, although finding a RW for Sidney Crosby after Dupuis tore his ACL was a close second. Goc and Stempniak add solid depth to a team that was badly lacking it, while it looks likely at first that Goc will play on the 3rd line with Brandon Sutter while Stempniak gets a shot to play with Crosby and Kunitz. Depending on how Stempniak plays, Beau Bennett will be able to slide in on either 1st or 3rd line after returning from injury and allow Sutter and the 3rd line to be much more effective than they've been able to be so far this season. While Ray Shero had previously said that he wouldn't be interested in acquiring rental players, these moves were cheap in terms of assets spent. By just trading draft picks and not taking on additional salary after this season, Shero also didn't make an already difficult offseason even more difficult to manage. As it stands right now, the Pittsburgh Penguins have $16 million in cap space, but they also have some significant moves to make.

The Pens have 7 forwards and 5 defensemen under contract for next season. Luckily the most important players are under contract, but players such as Jussi Jokinen, Brandon Sutter, and Matt Niskanen will be free agents. Virtually the entire bottom 6 will be entering free agency as Craig Adams is the only player signed for next season. With Niskanen realistically looking at $4.5-$5 million per year, Sutter $3.5-$4 million even with him being a RFA, and Jokinen $3-$3.5 million, it becomes clear very quickly that some changes will need to be made.

A big reason for the lack of depth at forward is because Ray Shero has been focusing on defense with his top draft picks. With a tight cap situation and several young defensemen with cheap entry level contracts, it's time to go with a bit of a youth movement on defense so that an NHL caliber bottom 6 can be signed. Olli Maatta, Derrick Pouliot, and Brian Dumoulin are all signed to very cheap contracts, and while Simon Despres is a RFA he shouldn't get too much of a raise. Having 3 of those 4 in the starting lineup would come at a small cap hit, and Maatta showed what can happen when you allow a young player to play and develop.

At this point not re-signing Brooks Orpik seems like an obvious move, but it also means shedding salary already committed to players. Arguments could be made for either Kris Letang, Paul Martin, or Rob Scuderi. Trading Letang would clear the most cap space and bring back the best return even with his health issues, although when he's playing at his best he's definitely the most dynamic of the three. Paul Martin has only a year left on his current contract, and by trading him this offseason Shero could get something in return as well as clearing cap space, but Martin consistently plays at a high level and should be in line for an extension when he's eligible. Scuderi has struggled in his first year back in Pittsburgh, but he's the type of stay at home defenseman Shero had been trying to find for several years. If Niskanen doesn't re-sign it'd save a similar amount off next year's cap, but given his play and age he should be one of the top priorities in the offseason.

Jussi Jokinen would be a good target to re-sign if the price is right given his versatility, chemistry with Malkin and Neal, and Beau Bennett's lack of a track record in the NHL. Letting him walk in free agency would create a hole in the top 6 that Bennett may or may not be able to fill at this point in his career, and if Jokinen plays outside the top 6 he would help strengthen what has been a weak 3rd line. Brandon Sutter's status with the team looks like it'll be one of the more interesting storylines to follow this offseason after the Penguins very publicly expressed interest in replacing him with Ryan Kesler. Normally a player in his position could reasonably be expected to leave town after his contract is up, but Sutter is a RFA and the Penguins control his rights. He'll get a $2.7 million qualifying offer, but it wouldn't be surprising if the Pens are hoping he gets an offer sheet so they can collect the draft pick compensation and make a move to return to the 3 center model. Sutter's value to Vancouver is likely to take a hit in the offseason since he'll no longer have a contract and they received Shawn Matthias in the Luongo trade, but it looks likely that Shero will try to make something work to bring Kesler to Pittsburgh.

Outside of Jokinen and Sutter, the Penguins likely have a very clear indication of who among their forwards they'd be interested in retaining, and at what cost in what role as well. Shero will be able to get an extended look at Goc and Stempniak before deciding whether to try to re-sign either of them, but the Penguins might be best suited going outside the organization to rebuild the bottom 6. One thing they cannot afford to do is to go cheap, as the cheap free agency acquisitions and lack of prospect development has led to the depth problems the team has suffered from this year. Some players from Wilkes-Barre Scranton might force their way into the conversation, but they shouldn't be counted on to hold down starting roles at this point.

Ray Shero and Jason Botterill have done wonders working with the salary cap over the years, but they might finally have too little cap space and too many holes to fill without making some serious changes. They almost certainly need to shed salary, and it most likely will have to come from the defense, although Marc-Andre Fleury remains a possible candidate for a buyout if he can't exorcise his playoff demons. The strategy to focus on defense in their prospect pool has produced some talented prospects, and it's time to allow them to earn their keep at the NHL level; they'll take up minimal cap space and allow needs to be addressed elsewhere. With the youth on defense, it would be time for Ray Shero to start focusing on forward depth through the draft, and it might be time to overhaul what type of forward he's looking at and possibly the organization's player development system as a whole. As teams have gotten better accustomed to the salary cap it's become clear that having young players on cheap contracts is a must. The Penguins are in a position to do that next season with their defense, but not being able to fill needs with cheap prospects developed within the system will lead to salary cap headaches like the one coming up becoming a more frequent occurrence.

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