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NHL Salary cap: how the Pittsburgh Penguins look after the Olli Maatta trade

The Penguins saved some money this weekend by shipping out Maatta. But just how much?

Washington Capitals v Pittsburgh Penguins - Game Three

Just as you can’t judge a haircut during the middle of the job, a look at the Penguins’ salary cap situation right now shows it’s incomplete. As general manager Jim Rutherford told the Trib, more changes might be coming:

“You don’t know what comes up,” Rutherford said. “We’ve got the right-left shot fixed, but are there players that are going to come up that make our defense better? If there is, we’ll do it. If there isn’t, we’re OK with our defense.”

Improvement on defense is certainly still needed, and shipping Olli Maatta out doesn’t really upgrade that group, even if it does make them a bit less heavy.

So, knowing that the outlook is about to change again, let’s take a peak at how Pittsburgh’s salary cap situation looks.

First, it’s important to remember the upper limit is still unannounced, and Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman said over the weekend that teams are bracing for it to potentially be in the $82 million range, instead of the first league estimate of $83 million. That’s still an increase from 2018-19’s $79.5 million cap.

Anyway... here’s Wonderwall, the current moment’s CapFriendly look for next season:

There’s no need to get too caught up in the lines, but there’s a general idea of how the team is shaped right now with at least $4.5 million in cap space (and possibly more if the salary cap ends up being higher than the conservative $82.0 million we’ll project here). That’s still not a lot of cap space though, considering most (or all) of it will have to go to the new contacts for three restricted free agents absent from the above look in forwards in Zach Aston-Reese, Teddy Bleuger, and defenseman. Marcus Pettersson. All of whom are expected back at reasonable enough rates, but are still needed to be accounted for. But at expected rates, that doesn’t leave much — if any — room.

The Evolving Wild projections that we went over last month estimate a total of $3.8 million combined for these three, but that could be a bit light on what they projected for Pettersson, who the team might want to lock up for what they did for Ian Cole/Jamie Oleksiak over the years.

So the Penguins still need to get a bit leaner financially as they continue to look to improve their squad for 2019-20. Since it appears that won’t include moving Phil Kessel, they’ll have to look in other places.

If they were to shift Jared McCann to center, and now have Dominik Kahun, where does that leave Nick Bjugstad’s place on the team? Patric Hornqvist has a full no-trade clause, and as we saw with Kessel, that can lead to tough issues for a team looking to move a player who’s wielding power. They tried to tack Jack Johnson in with Kessel to Minnesota — how or what would a trade for him look like?

Those seem like the major questions to answer at this point. Rutherford promised changes, and while dealing Maatta was an opening salvo, it surely won’t be the end of the efforts to make the team look different. Financially swapping Maatta for Kahun gives the Penguins some breathing room, but it hardly opens up enough space to be any type of players in free agency.

All these questions and more will be answered, and then when the haircut is complete, we’ll see what it looks like in the mirror.