Labor day has come and gone and summer is unofficially over. Hockey players are starting to filter back into town and prepare for Pittsburgh Penguins training camp, which is starting sometime next week. Ready or not, the 2013-14 season is about to dawn.
For the Penguins right now, they are not. With 13 forwards, 8 defensemen and 2 goalies under contract, Pittsburgh’s salary cap number is currently sitting at $65,398,333, according to Capgeek. The NHL has set the upper limit this season at $64,300,000, putting the Pens at about $1.1 million over the limit.
We’ve all known, practically since the signing of free agent defenseman Rob Scuderi, that a trade would be needed to be made to get the Pens under the cap. Teams are allowed to exceed the salary cap by 10% in the summer, so going about a million over when there’s a $6 million cushion is no big deal. But clubs must be cap-compliant before the start of the regular season, and with training camps opening soon, it seems likely a move will be made sooner rather than later.
Enter the worst kept secret of the Penguins this summer - Matt Niskanen and his $2.3 million cap hit for 2013-14, the last year of his contract. The “shutdown” pairing of Brooks Orpik and Paul Martin figures to return, and Scuderi was brought in to kill tough minutes at even strength and penalty kill. Kris Letang will continue to play 25-26 minutes a night to fill out the top four. From there the Pens still have Simon Despres, Deryk Engelland and Robert Bortuzzo who are all reasonable options to play 5th, 6th and 7th roles on the depth chart. Pittsburgh would also have promising youngster Brian Dumoulin and 26-year-old Brendan Mikkelson (a veteran of 131 NHL games over 6 different seasons) in Wilkes-Barre as solid call-up options if injury necessitated it.
Which puts the writing on the wall for Niskanen, who is a fine player but best used as a 5th or 6th defensemen on the third pair and that’s a luxury that Pittsburgh can’t afford under their salary cap commitments this season. Trading Niskanen for draft pick(s) and/or a non-NHL contract (prospect) puts the Penguins at $1.2 million under the cap, with 22 bodies on a maximum 23-man roster. There’s no guarantee they’d need to carry 23, though injuries and road-trips make for ever fluctuating roster circumstances in the NHL season.
As Niskanen was quoted by the Post-Gazette earlier in the week: "I know the situation we're in, being over the cap, it's pretty evident that Ray [Shero] has to make a decision. Someone who probably otherwise is a regular on our roster [will be traded]”.
Crunching the numbers, it’s difficult to see how it isn’t Niskanen - with the amount the Pens definitely need to shed (the $1.1 million they are over) plus a cushion to hold for any injury call-ups, and also the strategy of building in a bump for mid-season trade deadline-type acquisitions, Shero probably needs to clear $2 million in salary for this season in whatever move he makes. Of the players who will make that amount or more, the only other candidate for a trade would be forward Jussi Jokinen, but given the Pens loss of depth this off-season at that position (with Matt Cooke, Tyler Kennedy, Brenden Morrow and Jarome Iginla moving on), Shero probably isn’t looking to weaken his depth at that position any more than it already is. To make the math work, they could send Despres ($840,000 cap hit) and an over-priced Tanner Glass ($1.1 million) to the minors to clear those salaries, but that isn’t a realistic option either and would leave the team with only 19 healthy bodies and little room for necessary injury replacements.
Which means, again, all roads are pointing back to Niskanen. He’s been a player that was a throw-in with the James Neal for Alex Goligoski trade and has done well in his career in Pittsburgh. While not dynamic, Niskanen has been solid at-times, especially when several of Pittsburgh’s top defensemen (Martin, Letang, Orpik) have been injured- sometimes multiple guys at the same time. Niskanen is a smooth skating, right-handed defenseman who can play comfortably on either side of the ice and has a good mix of experience and skills while not being too old. He’s also only got a season left before becoming a UFA, making his contract pretty attractive for a team that won’t get bogged down with future years on the deal to eat if he doesn’t fit in.
It’s a shame, but all business. If Niskanen’s salary was a million less, the Pens would gladly slot him into their team for this season, waive or trade one of Engelland or Bortuzzo and roll with 7 defensemen. But, the salary cap is in place and the numbers are what they are. And for that reason, the “other shoe” is probably about to drop on Niskanen, ending his time as a Pittsburgh Penguin. It’s really only about when it’s made and where he is going.