Penguins face salary cap pressure with Malkin, Letang decisions looming
At first glance, the Penguins’ salary cap situation might not seem daunting.
Ron Hextall has $23.2 million to play this summer, more than his predecessors Jim Rutherford and Ray Shero generally enjoyed.
Dig a little deeper and you’ll realize that $23.2 million isn’t that much after all. Rutherford and Shero never had that crop of free agents to keep; they never had to worry about whether players like Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang were too old for long-term deals, and they didn’t manage the Penguins at that kind of crossroads.
The Rust contract is all the proof you need that the Penguins have no interest in rebuilding.
— Josh Yohe (@JoshYohe_PGH) May 22, 2022
Hextall has already signed Bryan Rust to a team-friendly deal worth $5,125 a year over six years. It 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. Of those, 10 are on team-friendly deals or just don’t have the NHL experience to make more money. Here’s what each of those 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 could very clearly make more money on the open market or, in the case of O’Connor and Zohorna, can land a spot on the roster at little cost.
Hextall is also dealing with six return contracts from players who arguably didn’t perform well enough last season to justify their salaries. These cap successes remain intact for next season:
Hextall spoke quite forcefully last week about his desire to retain Malkin and Letang. Although his stated preference has always been to keep both, he has spoken passionately about wanting them to finish their careers in Pittsburgh.
Of course, it won’t be cheap. For most of the past decade, Malkin and Letang have combined to cost the Penguins $16.75 million per year (Malkin at $9.5 million per year, Letang at $7.25 million per year) .
The Penguins cannot reasonably be expected to employ them for the same combined price in the future. Malkin turns 36 in July and is a year away from major knee surgery. Although he’s still a points-per-game player, he’s clearly not the skater he once was. Malkin is willing to play for less money in the future.
Financially speaking, Letang could be the problem. The market has never been more lucrative for defenders, and Letang is having a solid season. He also knows that replacing his minutes would be a very difficult chore. He gave no indication that, like Malkin, he would be willing to take less money. In fact, he would like a raise.
If Malkin and Letang had the same combined cap going forward, the Penguins would have 18 players under contract with just $5.5 million in cap space. They would still need to sign a handful of players to complete their roster and, ideally, they would like to add a veteran back-up goaltender, which could cost more than they would like.
Last season, the Penguins paid their blue line more than any defensive core in the NHL. While their defenders haven’t had a bad season, the Penguins would be well served to move some contracts around for the sake of their short- and long-term cap situations.
Both Pettersson and Marino are transfer candidates, although it’s hard to imagine Marino being traded if Letang is not retained. The Penguins aren’t interested in losing their top two right-handed defensemen. If Letang returns, however, Marino’s move would appear to be in play because of his contract.
Pettersson has struggled in 2021-22. He played very well in the first half of the season but faded over time, with his play in front of his own net a particular concern. Given that he doesn’t provide much of an attack, Pettersson’s contract isn’t ideal.
Then there is Dumoulin. One of the most stable 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 just a slow year. Maybe.
Given the Penguins’ depth on the left side and their cap issues, moving Dumoulin could make a lot of sense. Also, at some point the Penguins have to start making room for one of their few prospects who projects himself as an NHL player.
Pierre-Olivier Joseph is ready to play in the NHL. He played 136 games in the American Hockey League, 142 if you count the playoffs. Joseph hasn’t looked the least bit out of place in 20 NHL appearances. He will be 23 in July.
A restricted free agent, Joseph will need a new contract, but it won’t be expensive. If they slide him into the left side of their defensive core and trade Pettersson or Dumoulin, the Penguins will have saved about $3 million in cap space that can be allocated to goaltenders or forwards. Plus, they will have gotten a little younger, which they could use.
Plus, they’ll have added an attack-minded defender instead of a player — Dumoulin or Pettersson — who adds very little in this category. The best teams in the NHL are suddenly presenting a roster full of offensively productive defensemen. The game changes. Joseph can be helpful.
Others at Wilkes-Barre could be promoted next season. Samuel Poulin, the team’s 2019 first-round pick, should be ready for NHL action. He’s been disappointed in a few NHL training camps and produced a modest 16 goals in 72 AHL games last season. However, the power forward was much better in the second half of the season 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 need a new contract.
To retain or not to retain?
Besides Letang and Malkin, the Penguins have other players in limbo. Their return may 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 has been a disaster this season, but some members of the Penguins organization remain in love with his physical talent. Heinen had a career year on an inexpensive contract. The Penguins would love to bring him back, but they know he won’t be as cheap next season.
Rickard Rakell and Evan Rodrigues are the unrestricted free agents not named Letang or Malkin. The Penguins loved what Rakell brought to the roster and would love to bring him back. However, finances will be difficult. His cap has been just under $4 million over the past six seasons, and he’s likely expected at least a modest raise. Rakell looks likely to return only if Letang or Malkin sign elsewhere, unless, of course, the Penguins are able to drop some salary by 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 is also one of the most streaky players in franchise history and was largely absent for the second half of the season.
How much money do you give a guy like that? It’s a tough question to answer, but Hextall quickly learns all about hard answers to hard questions.
It’s about Hextall making sensible moves moving forward. Would it be ideal for Malkin and Letang to return? Sure. They can still play at a high level. However, Hextall can’t just give the duo what they want. It is not that simple. The Penguins need help on the last 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 aging superstars, the Penguins aren’t as good as they used to be. If Malkin commands more than $7 million a year, it wouldn’t be a good deal to bring him back. If Letang demands more than $7.5 million a year, that wouldn’t be a good deal either. They could probably get more on the open market, but that doesn’t matter. It’s not about the free market. It’s about making smart decisions for the Penguins and shaping the roster in a way that helps the Penguins go from a streak of first-round starts to another Stanley Cup run.
If the Penguins can bring them back for a combined $2.5 or $3 million cut, they should. They also badly need to trade one of the $4 million players from their blue line. Do that, and suddenly they have the cash to improve in goal and to improve in the last six, two areas that have held them back for too long.
(Photos: Charles LeClaire/USA Today)