Would Pens Demote Despres to Squeeze Niskanen Under Cap?

Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Pittsburgh has to get under the NHL's salary cap. That's likely to bring change to the team's defense, where eight viable players are vying for six regular spots.

The Pittsburgh Penguins are currently some $1.1 million above the NHL's regressive salary cap ceiling of $64.3 million, a number which was lowered following last year's lockout and which now has some teams scrambling.

Pittsburgh is one of six clubs sitting above that allowable number.

With just about a month to go to shed that space and keep their salary ship afloat, defenseman Matt Niskanen, he of the $2 million annual salary, has become the du jour cargo to be thrown overboard.

The chatter speaks nothing of Niskanen's ability. The fourth-year Penguins product was a strong number-five defenseman last season, stepping into top-four roles when called upon. He's been deployed in even-strength and special teams situations under head coach Dan Bylsma, and at 26 is still a young defenseman with considerable NHL experience for his age.

Niskanen will be entering his seventh full NHL season in 2013-14 and has 121 points in 410 career games so far.

In spite of rumors, a recent spot by the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review's Rob Rossi pours some water on the Niskanen trade talk.

"The Penguins insist they can get under the cap by the roster-set date without a trade, so they feel no pressure to move Niskanen.

Finally, of their eight NHL-ready defensemen, only Simon Despres - with his $840,000 cap hit - does not need to pass through waivers to play in the AHL."

It's an interesting point. The Penguins could ostensibly keep each of their current top-8 defenders, which includes borderline guys like Deryk Engelland and Robert Bortuzzo and mainstays Kris Letang, Brooks Orpik, Rob Scuderi and Paul Martin, in addition to Niskanen and Despres.

All of this is to speak nothing of Niskanen's trade value which, at the outset of training camps across the league, is about as low as it's going to be.

Like Niskanen, each of those six players is waiver eligible. Despres, the youngest of the Pens' top-8 at 22, is entering the final year of his entry-level contract. His $840,000 cap hit could be moved to the AHL without risking a waiver claim and the Pens would be within striking distance of cap compliance.

Despite CapGeek's estimations, according to the Trib article, Penguins Assistant GM Jason Botterill "hinted Wednesday the Penguins have more cap space than some believe."

The Penguins obviously have the leverage to demote Despres once again, but what would that do to his development? At 22, the former first-round draft pick would likely populate the minor league roster of no other NHL team. There's an argument to be made about whether his development would be better served by playing fewer minutes against better players or more minutes against lesser competition.

That's a question for the staff to answer. However, Bylsma went so far as to characterize Despres as a "top-four" defenseman following last year's playoff exit. Demoting him after such an assessment is going to be a hard PR sell, even if the numbers tell the story.

All in all, this isn't the worst problem to have. Just like moving Niskanen would speak to contract status rather than on-ice productivity, demoting Despres would be a bit of contract maneuvering.

This is one of the residual effects of signing the team's veterans to contract extensions. Like last year, the Pens will carry eight defensemen at the NHL level. However, the available money has changed significantly.

Rob Scuderi will replace Mark Eaton on the roster, but his $3.375 AAV will do much more than replace Eaton's contract of a year ago, which hovered near the league minimum.

That, plus the reduced cap ceiling, have put the Penguins in a bind.

It doesn't figure to be a recurring problem. The salary cap is expected to grow next season as it did in each year following the 2005 lockout, likely to eclipse 2012's $70.3 cap ceiling as early as next year. That projects to make the big extensions the Penguins dished out this season to look like peanuts by the time they expire.

Are those long-term bargains worth a year of playing tight around the salary cap collar? God yes, provided the cap increases as expected.

The risk the Pens could run in burying Despres' salary now lay in jeopardizing his development, psyche or, perhaps worse, willingness to remain in Pittsburgh past this season.

All in order to have one more year of Matt Niskanen?

It's a tightrope.

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