Last week news broke that the Pittsburgh Penguins re-signed young star Jake Guentzel for a five year contract extension that will kick in for the 2019-20 season at an annual rate of $6.0 million per season.
The overall consensus from the fans seems to be well-received as a fair contract for a skill player over what should be the most productive years of his career. Guentzel has been an incredible bargain, as he’s been a top-6 player for the Pens for basically 2.5 of the three seasons of his entry-level deal with a salary cap hit of just $734,167. Guentzel has scored 115 points so far in 160 career regular season games (including 34 points in 38 games to open this season). He has been a durable player - suiting up for all 82 games last season and all 38 this year as well.
Playoffs has been an amazing success as well with an eye-popping 42 points (23 goals, 19 assists) in 37 games. If Guentzel continues to play his best when the games matter the most it would obviously be a very beneficial and awesome thing for Pittsburgh.
The $6.0 million salary is fair considering many believe that William Nylander “reset the market” after his long holdout netted a six year, $6.9 million salary per year. Guentzel’s $6.0 million matches what Nikolaj Ehlers got in Winnipeg, and what Filip Forsberg signed for in Nashville. It’s a bit less than the long-term deals for wingers who drive their own lines more like David Pastrnak ($6.6 million) and Johnny Gaudreau ($6.75 million), which seems very fair.
But, all this success has resulted in the well-deserved and earned pay raise for next season. For the team’s perspective, this sizable increase will obviously have to be accounted for when it comes to the salary cap.
So what does Guentzel’s salary going from $734k to $6.0m mean for the team? Maybe not as much as you might think upon first glance.
The salary cap is going up for 2019-20, just like it does every year
Some good news for the Pens is that NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said earlier this month that the league is expecting the upper limit of the salary cap to increase up to about $83.0 million in 2019-20, up from the $79.5 million limit for this current 2018-19 season.
The salary cap is calculated based on league revenue, and the good news for big market teams like the Pens is that the league continues to increase the amount of money they are making, which means the amount of money to pay the players goes up. From a Sportsnet article earlier from the recent Board of Governors meeting:
The cap has risen steadily in recent years, going from $64.3-million in 2013-14 to $69-million to $71.4-million to $73-million to $75-million and finally $79.5-million this season.
“I think the fact the the salary cap continues to increase means revenues continue to increase, which means the state of the sport and the business is very healthy,” said deputy commissioner Bill Daly. “As healthy as it’s ever been. That’s good for us, it’s good for the players. I think it’s good for everybody.”
So if you just attribute the whole of the salary cap increase to Guentzel, that will take care of about $3.5 million of the extra space that Pittsburgh needs to find (about $5.3 million). Where will the other ~$1.8 million come from?
Riley Sheahan ($2.1 million salary in 2018-19, free agent this summer) is a luxury to have at this point as a fourth line player who doesn’t produce much. Though he’s trusted as a defensive-minded center and penalty killer, this seems an obvious position to save money and use a younger player who would cost less than a million on the cap - with the obvious candidate being Teddy Blueger who has spent quite the apprenticeship in Wilkes-Barre.
From there, the defense is also a spot to re-allocate money. As of now, the Pens have six defensemen signed for next season. The cheapest really isn’t cheap at all with Jamie Oleksiak making $2.137 against the cap. We all know the anchor of Jack Johnson who will have four more years remaining on a $3.25 million cap hit. Olli Maatta will have three years left on his deal worth $4.08 million. Justin Schultz will be in a contract year in 2019 making $5.5 million. Past that, the two untouchable first-pair players worth their weight in gold are Brian Dumoulin ($4.1 million) and Kris Letang ($7.25).
A CapFriendly positional breakdown shows that only San Jose and Winnipeg spend more than the $29.13 million that the Pens have spent on defensive cores this year. In theory it makes a lot of sense to deal a defender (like Oleksiak, Maatta or even Schultz in his free agent year) in order to re-sign a young restricted free agent like Marcus Pettersson or Juuso Riikola and generate more salary certainty.
Using the always fun CapFriendly Armchair GM feature, here’s what the 2019-20 outlook for Pittsburgh is as of right now:
It’s a work in progress and won’t be the opening day lineup, but probably a good thing to have Guentzel signed and secured and now general manager Jim Rutherford can work around him. The Pens only have about $8.6 million in cap space under the projected $83.0 million cap (which, of course, could be a bit higher or lower still but is a fair enough number to guide us at this point).
There’s low cap space, but also limited holes. The glaring one is that of third line center, with Derick Brassard currently in a contract season. Beyond that, Pittsburgh just needs to add three fourth line forwards - some of which probably will be achieved by promoting a couple young AHLers. They don’t have much to do except add a depth defensemen or two (again, likely Pettersson at the way he is playing). And they’ll need to find a backup goalie, which is or at least was presumed to be Tristan Jarry who is under contract next season at a $750k rate.
In roster construction it does make a lot of sense to move a defenseman out to clear up the salary space needed to get a third line center. Hey, maybe even kill two birds with one stone if a trade can be made to send a player like Maatta or Schultz or Oleksiak out and bring back a center in that transaction. It’s always iffy to project too much more specifically than that at this point with so much still to happen before October 2019 so it will be a wait and see situation.
However, the bottom line is that the Penguins aren’t likely to be an active participant in the July 1 free agency period after this Guentzel contract. Which isn’t a shocking declaration as the team almost never is in such a position. But even though Guentzel’s sweetheart of an ELC is ending for the team, they are still relatively well-positioned to absorb that salary increase and retain pretty much their whole team for 2019-20, should they elect to go that route.