Pushed near the salary cap (well, actually past it as of right now), Pittsburgh Penguins GM Ray Shero has had to see another summer of more subtractions than additions, especially among forwards. Gone are Jarome Iginla, Brenden Morrow, Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy. That’s a big hit for the middle lines and depth of the Penguins to take, and while guys like Beau Bennett, Jussi Jokinen and maybe even Dustin Jeffrey will have a chance to expand their roles with Pittsburgh, the team could probably use a little more lower line depth in an ideal world.
We know the top lines are settled, and barring injury, aren’t a concern. With Sidney Crosby and his customary wingers of Pascal Dupuis and Chris Kunitz followed by the “second” line of Evgeni Malkin and James Neal, the Pens have some of the most balance and skill of any top six that you’ll currently find in the league.
The third line clearly has Brandon Sutter as center, probably with Jokinen on a wing. You can write Craig Adams in stone for the fourth line and then Tanner Glass, Joe Vitale, Matt D’Agostini and Jeffrey in the competition for the three last spots in the opening night lineup, with long-shots in Harry Zolnierczyk, Andrew Ebbett, Chris Conner, Jayson Megna and Adam Payerl all likely on the outside of the bubble to round out the roster, but all could be decent depth options depending on filling any holes due to injury, given how they perform down on the farm.
That depth above, while decent, lacks a glaring aspect- and that’s replacing the play of Matt Cooke on the 3rd line.
The spot Cooke has had on the 3rd line left wing figures to loom the largest. Cooke has been steady offensively, chipping in between 12-19 goals and 30-38 points in his five years in Pittsburgh, as well as his customary physical game where he was always at or near the top of Penguins forwards in the past five seasons in gritty categories like hits, blocked shots, takeaways and short-handed time on ice. Coach Dan Bylsma has hinted the Penguins would like Glass to step in and fill those minutes, but given Glass’s lack of productivity and his incredibly weak possession numbers, that’d be akin to replacing a steak with Spam and hoping for a nice dinner.
But, as touched upon above given the Penguins salary cap situation, there might not be external options available. If the Penguins can move Matt Niskanen and his $2.3 million salary, they would be left with $1.2 million in cap space, which means they wouldn’t be able to pay someone much more than league minimum to join the team and still have any cushion for the future.
In recent days and weeks though, potential options have been choosing other teams as well- Morrow is rumored to have a professional tryout contract (PTO) with the Montreal Canadiens. Mason Raymond, a 27-year old forward in the Tyler Kennedy mold has accepted a PTO with Toronto. There are some far-fetched options like Milan Hejduk, that probably wouldn’t be more than Miroslav Satan 2.0 at this point and don’t seem likely. But there is one really intriguing name out there:
It wouldn’t be for the rock bottom, as Cleary has said, he’s had a deal on the table to go back to Detroit, which he’d prefer. As he told the USA Today recently:
"I've got a great deal right now that I could take," Cleary said. "But I don't know. It's hard. We all know what [Detroit GM Ken Holland] is trying to do. We're all in agreement that I want to come back. They want me back. You know, so we'll see."
So the Penguins would have to make it worth Cleary’s while to come to Pittsburgh- meaning they’d have to clear out another salary to give them the salary cap space to make it worth his while ($$$$) to come to town. Trading Niskanen puts the Pens $1.2 million under the cap, trimming Glass (through trade or burying him in the minors for just a $175,000 hit) would save another $1.1 million. Even then, the Pens would max out at $2.3 million cap space and would need a buffer to operate. Would that be enough for Cleary? Doesn’t seem likely without even more jockeying by Shero.
But, where there is a will, there is a way in the salary cap world. Aside from Marian Hossa (who straight up chose Detroit over Pittsburgh not based off of money), it’s doubtful that Shero’s had to let go of anyone he really wanted to keep. Sure, he let Scuderi go in 2009, but he also had Jay McKee as a cheap would-be-replacement that just didn’t work out. Shero also wanted to keep Sergei Gonchar, but then chose to give that money (and extra contract length) to Paul Martin in the same summer. For a smart NHL GM, the salary cap is a hurdle but not one that can’t be negotiated over if they want to badly enough.
The question boils down to how much interest a player would have in coming to Pittsburgh, and whether or not the Pens truly think they can replace Matt Cooke internally. If there’s a will, there’s a way, but at this point getting Dan Cleary in black-and-gold is a pipedream that’s odds are as long as Glass actually successfully filling Cooke’s skates.