When it comes to the Penguins' cap all of the focus immediately goes to how much they are paying their top players lke Crosby, Malkin and Kris Letang. But those guys are not the issue. They are getting more than their money's worth out of all of them them, and you could probably make the argument that they might actually be underpaid for the production they are getting out of them.
The issue is when you start looking at the bottom of the roster where they are overpaying guys like Nick Spaling ($2.2 million), Brandon Sutter ($3 million) and Rob Scuderi ($3 million) to play at third-and fourth-line levels (and in the case of Scuderi, like a seventhd defensemen). That is more than $8 million in cap space, and even if you argue that Spaling and Sutter are useful players but just a little bit overpaid ... well, even a little bit of an overpay makes a big difference when you're forced to play with five defensemen for salary cap reasons.
This is where it becomes a shared responsibiilty between the new GM and the former GM.
Shero left more than one bad contract behind (Scuderi; Chris Kunitz's deal isn't going to look very good in the coming years, either), but Rutherford hasn't done anything to fix it.
It is certainly some bad luck to lose Christian Ehrhoff and Kris Letang to injuries on back-to-back games at the point of the season where neither could be placed on LTIR, but playing with less than a full roster is simply inexcusable.
The Penguins could have avoided this by not trading for David Perron, or by not making other trades, but I'm glad they did it. Because the point of those trades were to improve the team for the playoffs, and every effort should be made to do just that.
Moving past it- how do the Pens fix their salary cap structure? The soonest they can do so is in the summer.
As mentioned, guys like Spaling and Sutter are over-paid for their roles/production, they should be jettisoned. The team should explore trading Scuderi, if there is any market for him. Ian Cole has played well, but even then the Pens don't need Scuderi. If Scuderi can't be traded, he should be bought out this summer. It would give the team 4 years of a nominal fee of "dead cap space", but it would be a lot more manageable and preferable than 2 more years of poor performance from a slow, aging defenseman. In fact, for the first 2 years, the Pens would actually have more space by buying out Scuderi and replacing him with a younger, cheaper player like Cole or Scott Harrington or Brian Dumoulin. Throw in the benefit that any of them should be better hockey players in 1-2 years and it makes even more sense.
Kunitz is aging and his production isn't great this year- if the Pens can flip him for a younger player they might be able to kill two birds with one stone. If they can't and have to hold onto him, it isn't the end of the world but it would put more of an onus to move guys like Sutter and Spaling to clear their contracts for cheaper replacements.
Then the Pens will have to re-work their forward corps, since useful players like Blake Comeau, Daniel Winnik and Steve Downie will be free agents. This is a lesser issue, because all of those players were free agents last summer too, and all were signed for reasonable amounts. So too were players like Derek Roy, Mike Santorelli and David Booth - all solid, reliable, good bottom six players that are recyclable, and usually sign for cheap. The supply of lower line forwards like that are usually plentiful. Sign more to one year deals and try to find production there.
Hopefully, in an ideal world, young (and cheap) talent like Oskar Sundqvist, Scott Wilson, Bryan Rust and Kasperi Kapanen can push for NHL playing time next season too. Not all of them will be ready/able to make the jump full-time, but the Penguins badly need to find fresh, young talent. As mentioned in the Globe and Mail earlier this week, the Penguins get the lowest contribution from players 24 and under in the entire league. That's bound to go up with Olli Maatta and Derrick Pouliot as full time NHL'ers next season, but it shows in a dramatic fashion that the team has to do more to get young talent up in the league.
With Crosby, Malkin, Letang and Marc-Andre Fleury all signed for at least the next 4 seasons, the Pens core is here to stay. As it probably should be, given how all perform on a year-in, year-out basis. But that core is coming at a $31.2 million cap hit next season, north of 40% of the team total.
It will take some major overhaul but the good news is this issue is easy to identify. Most of the Pens supporting players that are signed for 2015-16 make too much money. With the exception of Patric Hornqvist ($4.25 million) and David Perron ($3.8 million)- who are highly productive and on reasonable contracts- basically any player not 87, 71, 58 and 29 should be considered to be moved out this summer. (Other than of course young studs like Pouliot and Maatta, it should go without saying).
The Pens have work to do to keep their salary structure as fluid as possible. They need to learn from their mistakes and find ways to trim fat, while also making the supporting parts of the team faster, younger and more skilled at the same time. Making some large scale changes will probably be painful, but it's necessary- the team can't back themselves into a corner and be forced to play with less than a full compliment of players again.