Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford was pretty clear about why he traded Erik Gudbranson to the Anaheim Ducks yesterday. It was a move motivated by Gudbranson’s $4.0 million cap hit. As Rutherford told the Tribune-Review:
“It was only the matter of the cap,” Rutherford said. “We really, really like Erik. He was a good team guy, and he played well for us. He came out of a situation where he hadn’t played as well in Vancouver, and he came here. We felt he was very solid for us. I don’t feel totally comfortable moving him on. But it’s certainly part of the business we do in the cap system.
“He was a cap casualty.”
The Pens had a major salary cap problem that was temporarily alleviated by injuries to forwards like Bryan Rust and Evgeni Malkin. But Rust is likely back tonight, and Malkin is on the ice and will be back sooner than later. The Pens couldn’t kick the can down the road forever, thus ditching Gudbranson for a 29-year old minor leaguer and a seventh round pick. It’s a nothing return for Pittsburgh, the only benefit is clearing Gudbranson’s salary. It’s also significant for the future, since the Pens have many an important player to re-sign or replace next summer.
Since Pittsburgh’s situation is still complicated — they have Malkin and Rust on long-term injury reserve so they’re allowed to replace those players with up to the big salaries those two make, but receive no benefit that lasts beyond the injury. In plain terms, how will the Pens look once their whole team is healthy and counting against the salary cap? Let’s fire up old faithful, Capfriendly, and check it out.
We’ll assume for now that all the minor league call-ups, including Sam Lafferty, will go back to the AHL when the injuries cycle through. This of course might not be an accurate assumption, as the team likes what Lafferty has done so far. But unless there’s an injury, they have to stay under the 23-man limit, which for now means no room for Lafferty. Given Rutherford’s fondness for trading, one would have to wonder if the next trade they make is designed to open up a roster spot for Lafferty by trading a forward (Dominik Kahun? Zach Aston-Reese?), but that’s a different topic still to play out as it will be a while until all the forwards get healthy to push that decision.
From the screenshot above, that’s the Pens full roster which plus a $132,500 cap overage penalty from last year, plus the $175,000 cap burden for having Casey DeSmith in the AHL that adds up to a cap total of $78,356,625. The NHL’s upper limit this year is $81.5 million, which leaves $3.143 million of cap space for Pittsburgh once everything cycles through.
That is an advantageous position to be in moving forward, as the team can use it to upgrade later on in the year. The obvious spot is left defense where the team is weak behind Brian Dumoulin and Marcus Pettersson, the Pens now have the cap room to go out and address that and add a NHL player for the stretch run.
Dropping Gudbranson was certainly a financial-based decision for Pittsburgh, but one they needed to make. The emergence of John Marino eliminated the need for an expensive and limited player like Gudbranson. The advantages of this deal though won’t be just limited to the addition by subtraction of dropping an over-priced and not very good player though, since the Pens now have space to improve in the future as well.