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Monday, March 14, 2016

Investing in a Cost-Controlled Future by @BrianK_PI

Ever since the Penguins traded Jordan Staal they've been struggling to find an effective bottom 6. It certainly hasn't helped that for years the team was incapable of developing NHL caliber talent at the forward position, and big money contracts ended up going to players like Brandon Sutter and Nick Spaling who helped contribute to the problem. Up until this season, the Pens haven't been able to plug in cheap, cost-controlled players into their lineup and get contributions above that of their cap hit. The wave of AHL players brought up to the NHL team this season has provided optimism that Pittsburgh's farm system might finally have turned the corner on producing players capable of contributing at the NHL level, and the Penguins recognized that potential today when they re-signed Bryan Rust, Scott Wilson, and Tom Kuhnhackl to 2 year contract extensions.

Rust ($640k AAV), Wilson ($625k), and Kuhnhackl ($625k) will give Pittsburgh cheap options to fill the roster next season, and it looks likely that the team will need it from a salary cap standpoint. The team currently has $63.4 million committed to 16 players next season with Justin Schultz and Beau Bennett entering restricted free agency. Given the uncertainty around the Canadian dollar and the escrow situation the players are faced with, it's possible that next season's salary cap doesn't reach the $71.4 million ceiling that was in place for this year. The more cap space the Pens are able to save on players like these 3, the more flexibility they will have in trying to address a top 6 winger or added depth on defense.

And Wilson (6 pts in 25 GP), Rust (7 pts in 32 GP), and Kuhnhackl (6 pts in 28 GP) have all shown potential at times this season, and the three have continued to look better the longer they've been in the lineup. Both Wilson and Rust will be wavier-exempt next season and subject to waivers in the 2nd year of their extensions. Given that Kuhnhackl will be wavier-eligible over the course of the deal, it's likely that he's seen his last action for Wilkes-Barre. All 3 will be in position to win jobs in the bottom 6, and Wilson has seen limited time on Sidney Crosby's line and the top power play unit this season, and with the lack of quality LWs in the organization he could force his way into the top 6 with some strong and sustained play.

It's a low risk move for the Penguins to make. Any of the contracts can be buried in the AHL without showing up on the NHL cap, and they'll have free-movement for both Wilson and Rust through next season if either player struggles or they need to clear room. While the team was able to find great value in Matt Cullen on the free agency market, it's not realistic to expect that they can have the same luck this offseason. With a tight cap situation, the Pens need cheap contributors, and this trio from Wilkes-Barre have shown enough to find themselves firmly in the mix going forward.

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