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Sabres trade for Jeff Skinner shows how Penguins handcuffed themselves with Jack Johnson

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Investing so much in a depth defensemen cost the Penguins valuable salary cap space that hurt them in trying to acquire Jeff Skinner

Carolina Hurricanes v Los Angeles Kings Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images

The Pittsburgh Penguins were linked in the rumor mill to Carolina Hurricanes forward Jeff Skinner.

NHL Insider Elliotte Friedman said just a couple Thursdays ago on the NHL Network that he heard general manager Jim Rutherford was still trying to work something out and that “I wouldn’t be surprised if the Penguins are taking a long look at Skinner more than [Max] Pacioretty.”

Well, the Pens may have looked but they didn’t get Skinner, he was dealt for practically nothing today to the Buffalo Sabres.

Cliff Pu, 20, has a cool name but projects to be little more than a middle-line forward, with some risk that he doesn’t gain enough strength to be a full-time NHL caliber player.

A future 2nd, 3rd and 6th round pick are all 50%+ bets to be busts and of very little value for a top-6 skill winger like Skinner who has been a consistent point scorer.

So why couldn’t the Penguins be in the hunt to acquire a player they were often linked to? As is often the answer in NHL transactions and life in general- follow the money.

The Hurricanes got a prospect and picks for Skinner. They weren’t taking back any salary. The Pens currently have $1.0 million in cap space per CapFriendly (a real number will be $1.6m once they demote Jimmy Hayes). Skinner’s salary is $5.75 million per season.

The numbers just don’t add up- Pittsburgh couldn’t fit Skinner without shedding a meaningful salary. Carolina obviously was interested in cheap future assets rather than taking on an NHL caliber player with an NHL paycheck.

A lot of this rolls back to the team’s decision to sign Jack Johnson last month. Many non-critical fans and media voices shrugged it off in part as a generalized voice of, “what’s the big deal, it’s not that big of a cap hit at $3.25 million, those skeptical of this deal are blowing things out of proportion”.

But signings like Johnson’s hampered the Pens here. Take his salary out, add it to the existing $1.6 million of space and then don’t sign one of Derek Grant / Matt Cullen (whoever hypothetically you pass on, that’s the roster spot for Skinner to fill) and suddenly the Pens have $5.6 million in cap space.

Obviously that doesn’t fit Skinner perfectly and more manuevering would be needed to gain a little wiggle room, but if you get that close you can figure out a way to snake under the upper limit. If you’re $4 million away from adding Skinner, as the Pens found themselves, there’s just no chance. You can’t just throw in Carl Hagelin and his $4 million salary, for instance, when the other team is interested in a return that cuts payroll and focuses on draft picks and a prospect.

All that said, perhaps Skinner makes the Pens too top-heavy with investments to forwards. There’s a good case to make that money was needed to be spent on defensive depth. (Many would say Johnson isn’t the answer there though, either, but that’s a different case). Overall, Pittsburgh’s free agent decisions bumped them right back up to the top of the salary cap and that lack of flexibility probably cost them any chance they had at adding a marquee player in Skinner, whose team was selling him at a low trade-cost compared to his sizeable on-ice contributions.