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NHL Free Agency: Can the Penguins land John Tavares?

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Could the Pens land the biggest fish on the market?

2018 GEICO NHL All-Star Skills Competition - Save Streak Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Elliote Friedman floated the seemingly impossible in his latest column. Could the Penguins be able to land free-agent-to-be John Tavares?

3. Nothing involving Lamoriello gets announced until he decides it does, but a move to the Islanders is the rumour that just won’t die. I do believe there have been talks and that it is a serious possibility. Assuming he does take over, that probably means a new pitch to keep John Tavares. The captain’s done a very good job of staying under the radar, keeping a lid on his future. Someone we do not expect is going to come out of nowhere to take a run at him. It’s purely a guess, but Penguins GM Jim Rutherford is the kind of guy I could see staying up at night figuring out how to do it.

While Friedman admits it’s a “guess” it also seems telling he didn’t specify any other places besides Pittsburgh as an unexpected suitor. Just sayin’. Guesses from national media types don’t usually come straight out of the blue and left field totally...

So could it actually work? Well, as usual the answer is it depends on many factors. It didn’t seem likely Rutherford could fit Phil Kessel and his $8m salary under their salary cap when rumors linked the Pens to Kessel in June 2015 but they found a way to do so a few weeks later against all odds. Similarly, it seems like some special circumstances would have to happen.

First, one would have to think the Pens aren’t winning a bidding war. If Tavares isn’t going to settle less for, say $10+ million and a seven year contract, he might as well stay with the Islanders or go to a team with the cap space to make it happen. That won’t happen in Pittsburgh, no way around it. Tavares would have to be willing to do something out of the ordinary, which is obviously a huge leap to take. But, since it’s out there, let’s keep going.

About the closest thing we saw in hockey to this was Marian Hossa in the summer of 2008. The then-29 year old Hossa (who spent a few years of his career on a bad Atlanta team) spurned other,more lucrative and long-term offers to sign with the Detroit Red Wings for one year and $7.45 million. Pittsburgh was rumored to have offered similar money on a seven year deal. Hossa wanted to join what he perceived as a better team for a shot at a title. Especially as Pens fans you can hate him for it, but the idea (and turning down a TON of guaranteed money) is a sort of noble thing to do to forego the money to join a great team.

Tavares in 2018 has some similarities to Hossa in 2008. Tavares will be 28 before the next season starts. His NYI teams have only made the playoffs three times, and only won a total of 1 playoff round in his whole career. Could he possibly be willing to join the most successful team in the salary cap era for a chance at glory? The conventional play is to cash in, and for good reason, that’s the smart thing to do. But if he wants a shot at winning...

I often wondered why hockey players don’t pull a move that NBA stars common do and talk about joining up (like Sidney Crosby catching with Tavares at the all star game this year in the picture at the top of this article). That thought may be met with groans and fears of players having too much power, but it wouldn’t be without precedent. Remember when Jaromir Jagr turned Pittsburgh into Prague West in the late ‘90s when Mario Lemieux retired? Got a Czech head coach with no NHL experience hired? Kept getting Kip Miller contracts just because he liked playing with him for some reason? That happened. Hockey players don’t create “super teams” like in the NBA, but human nature stands to reason why wouldn’t one want to go to a great professional setting?

If Tavares had interest, how could the Pens do their part to be an option?

Interestingly, at clean out day Derick Brassard mentioned he was willing to play wing if necessary or if the team wanted him to next year. Shift him over into a top-6 role and the Pens would have a ton of wingers (Jake Guentzel, Kessel, Bryan Rust, Patric Hornqvist, Brassard, Daniel Sprong) to use with 1-2-3 punch of Crosby-Malkin-Tavares down the middle. Good gracious what a team that would be.

The Pens would have to cut some salary somewhere to fit Tavares. They’re lucky the salary cap is expected to go up about $5 million this summer, but they did re-sign Hornqvist and still have Rust to re-sign too. Conor Sheary ($3.0m), Carl Hagelin ($4.0m), Matt Hunwick ($2.25) would all seem like reasonable candidates to have to be traded in order to fit Tavares. Similarly Riley Sheahan (due a $2.075m qualifying offer) might be too expensive and too much of a luxury to keep on a crowded center depth chart. Another candidate for trading might be Brassard, who has just one year left on his contract ($3.0m cap hit for the Pens).

These moves would make the Pens very top-heavy and possibly limit depth. We saw first-hand in 2013 when the Pens added Jarome Iginla and Brenden Morrow that a team full of stars didn’t win it all. And the real stretch would be having Tavares interested in joining on a deal that would fit him in Pittsburgh. Likely he probably should take a bigger offer to go somewhere else. That’s what 99 out of 100 free agents would do, and for good reason since it makes the most financial sense.

But if Tavares is interested in joining a surefire playoff team and winner, Pittsburgh might be an intriguing spot for him to consider if they can shuffle the pieces and maybe guys like Crosby and Lemieux reach out and let Tavares know he has a chance to do something special and then the future big bucks will still be waiting.

Hypothetically speaking...How the Penguins could trim $7 million:

  • Trade Sheary ($3.0) for a draft pick. Insert Sprong (est. salary $800k) - saves $2.2 million
  • Shed Hunwick. Worst case, bury him in minors (saves $1.025 million), sign a cheap vet D free agent for $700k - saves $0.325 million, if not more if another avenue is there on a trade, but cap savings here will be minimal since the Pens will have to replace the depth lost
  • Trade Sheahan ($2.075m) for a draft pick. Insert Teddy Blueger or J.S. Dea as 4th line center (estimated cost $700k on a one-way deal). Saves $1.375 million
  • Trade Hagelin ($4m) for futures. Insert Zach Aston-Reese ($.925m). Saves $3.075 million
  • Total savings: $6.975m

—The more hypothetical moves, the tougher to actually happen. But 3 of these 4 players should have interest somewhere around the league for young teams looking to add contributors for next season, and all on at least semi-favorable contracts in $ and short term left on their deals. It would be a lot of wheeling and dealing, but Rutherford is known to be bold when trying to accomplish goals.

Potential lineup:

Guentzel - Crosby - Sprong*

Brassard - Malkin - Hornqvist

Rust* - Tavares - Kessel

Aston-Reese - Blueger - Simon*

Dumoulin - Letang

Maatta - Schultz

Oleskiak* - Ruhwedel

Murray

DeSmith / Jarry*

This lineup (assuming $7.0m for Tavares) carries a $70.5 million cap before the RFAs (*) are signed. The team would have to reach agreements with Sprong, Rust, Simon and Oleksiak. And also find a 13th F and a 7th D. So it would be a squeeze (give them .8, 2.5, .75, 1.4, .7 and .7 respectively, and that’s $6.85 million). With an expected $80.0m cap, it’s possible. It also leaves the defense very thin in case of injury, which should be pointed out.

Other avenues could be addressed or taken as well to trim salary, this was just one quick exercise and would hardly be set in stone. It’s very unlikely the team would or could deal Kessel or Letang given their restrictive “partial” no trade clauses and checkered pasts mean there’s more value to keep them anyways.

We’ll see if anything else comes of this, stay tuned, the summer could be more exciting than we might have thought. If I had to guess at probability I’d probably put it at a 1-5% chance, and maybe that’s even optimistic.

Often times though when there is a will, there is a way to figure out the financial details. John Tavares potentially coming to the Penguins hinges first and foremost on what Tavares wants to do. If he wants to join Sid and the Pens, that’s the biggest step and a yet unknown assumption. From there figuring out how to make the pieces fit will come together, that much is easy to say. If Tavares doesn’t (and his choice will probably be not to) then it doesn’t matter anyways and the off-season will have a more conventional look of tinkering with excess pieces of the roster.

The most important thing is to think out of the box and see what is possible. Rutherford did so in 2015 and got Kessel when many thought it was impossible and that helped catapult the Pens to two straight Stanley Cups. If he can somehow add Tavares, the team might be favored to get more in the future.