It's always interesting this time of year when Bill Daly or Gary Bettman from the NHL give preliminary talks about the following year's salary cap figure.
Bill Daly says the NHL's salary cap is projected to be $75.5M-$76M next season, but adds it will depend on inflator negotiations with NHLPA.— Chris Johnston (@reporterchris) March 8, 2017
The union, I believe, has always voted for the inflator to push up the upper limit. This is a double-edged sword for the players though, depending on where they are. On one hand, if you're an impending free agent you want the inflator. It benefits you to have the salary cap as high as possible and teams to have as much money to
burn through their pockets err spend on July 1.
On the other hand, if you're a player with a long-term deal (like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, Kris Letang, etc), the inflator doesn't benefit you. It hurts you because your money is locked in, but there is the escrow to worry about. The NHL could make the salary cap $100 million and teams could hand out that much salary, but at the end of the day, it's a 50/50 revenue agreement. Players have to pay back the difference of the owners over-spending and it comes out of their paychecks.
If there is no inflator the cap is expected to remain around $73.0 million again.
What does that mean for the Penguins? Well, it's tough to tell anything too precise at this exact moment due to the Marc-Andre Fleury situation. Depending on who Pittsburgh trades him to this summer (or if he even does something wild like waiving his NMC and becoming expansion eligible) will ultimately determine how much space the Pens have to work with. Anyways, we'll look at it a couple of ways.
Forwards (10): $36.48 million
Pittsburgh currently has 10 forwards on the team roster right now that are under contract for next season. It comes at a cost of $36.48 million salary cap hit (and we're using the commonly called "average annual value" as the cap hit, leaving potential bonuses for rookies to deal with as an overage, should they even hit them).
As a visual here's what the team looks like, as of right now at this moment (sure to change!)
Jake Guentzel - Sidney Crosby - Patric Hornqvist
Scott Wilson - Evgeni Malkin - Bryan Rust
Carl Hagelin - ??? - Phil Kessel
Tom Kuhnhackl - Carter Rowney -- ???
They also have Conor Sheary as a restricted free agent, and Chris Kunitz, Matt Cullen and Nick Bonino as impending unrestricted free agents.
Obviously it seems to reason top prospects like Daniel Sprong ($692k) and Oskar Sundqvist (RFA) could be salary efficient members of the team if they are ready for NHL action and those guys can and will be ready to prove themselves as soon as training camp.
Defenseman (3): $13.43 million
Yikes! The forward group looks about set; re-sign Sheary, maybe entertain Kunitz and find a new 3rd line center and they're about done. Defensively, there's a lot of work to do.
Brian Dumoulin and Justin Schultz are RFA's and four others are set to be UFA's in Ron Hainsey, Mark Streit, Trevor Daley and Chad Ruhwedel.
??? - Kris Letang
Olli Maatta - ???
Ian Cole - ???
Re-signing Schultz has been deemed a priority by managemenr and should happen early in summer. It will be interesting to see what leverage Dumoulin has in arbitration since he isn't a boxcar stat producer, so he could be back at a rate cheaper than many might expect (but certainly on a healthy raise from his current $800k contract).
From there the Pens have options, and might look to the UFA-market to bring in depth to fill the team out, much like they turned to the trade market recently to find players like Hainsey and Streit. Either way, significant decisions to make here.
Goaltenders (2??): $9.5 million
Since this is a "today look" and Fleury's on the team today, we'll include him for this exercise, especially since a backup goalie with a salary might be coming back to Pittsburgh (and could be a savings). Murray's next contract kicks in at $3.75 million which is still a tremendous value compared to the amount of pucks he's stopping versus his starting goaltender peers.
Total: $59.41 million on 10F/3D/2G
Based on Daly's estimate today that's about $16.09 - 16.59 million dollars for the Penguins to round out their roster. They should easily be able to fit raises for Schultz, Sheary and Dumoulin and then look to find a free agent center and also add a defenseman or two. This is all pre-Fleury changes, so the more Jim Rutherford can wiggle out of bringing back salary that's all the more room he'll have to work with for the rest of the team.
There's also the expansion draft, where a player listed above (perhaps Rust, Cole or even Hagelin) could be taken from the team, creating another hole to fill, but that's too tough to project at this point.
Pittsburgh doesn't have to be big movers and shakers in the summer since so much of their team (Crosby, Malkin, Kessel, Letang, Murray) are locked up in multi-year deals. All they have to do is find the right pieces to surround their core with and hopefully keep the pieces that do well with them (ala guys like Dumoulin and Sheary). This summer's major ripples will be seemingly the conclusion of the MAF saga and once that shockwave dies down, it could be a fairly quiet summer for Pittsburgh.