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NHL Free Agency: Penguins don’t have the cap space to be players

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Don’t expect Pittsburgh to do much in free agency, they don’t have room

NHL: Detroit Red Wings at Pittsburgh Penguins David Dermer-USA TODAY Sports

Today is the start of the NHL’s free agency period, where teams can start talking with impending free agents. Contracts can’t be signed and made official on July 1st (next Monday), but this week is the important jockeying by teams to find what players they want.

Here’s the list of free agents that the Pittsburgh Penguins will be in the mix for:

...

In your best Tony Kornheiser voice, say it with me - “that’s it, that’s the list!”

And here’s why, from CapFriendly:

No cap space. The Pens have $4.7 million left, and the majority (or entirety) of that will be spent on their own restricted free agents that they have to re-sign. That would be Marcus Pettersson, Zach Aston-Reese and Teddy Blueger.

A big reason why they have no cap space are the decisions they have made in the last 12 months. Chiefly, these ones:

For all general manager Jim Rutherford’s bluster about wanting to change up his team, his hands are largely tied. And he can look in the mirror to see who tied them up. Rutherford made transactions in the last year that have lingered and will continue to inhibit the team’s situation.

The obvious move that sticks out was when he turned Carl Hagelin’s expiring contract at the start of last season into two more seasons of a $4 million, third pair defenseman in Erik Gudbranson. Gudbranson worked out decently in a limited, sheltered role, but he’s signed for two more seasons at a premium rate that’s at least double (or triple, or quadruple) a salary for his contributions.

And as if having only one vastly overpaid defenseman that offers limited positive contributions on the roster isn’t enough, the Pens of course have another elephant in the room. It’s last summer’s big free agent acquisition in Jack Johnson that Rutherford gifted a five year contract. He’s now holding the bag on a bad defensemen who again figures to lead the team in goals against in 2019-20, since Rutherford has failed to erase his mistake this year, unlike last summer when he traded previous mistake Matt Hunwick.

Those two replacement or sub-replacement level players leave Pittsburgh in the lurch when it comes to making any potential changes or upgrades through free agency. Instead of having an extra $7.25 million to spend on (or dream of) players like Ryan Dzingel or Mats Zuccarello or Micheal Ferland or anyone else, Pittsburgh is pretty stuck with what they have thanks to what they already have done.

Which makes Rutherford’s challenge or his self-imposed idea to shake the team up pretty limited. Unless he’s making salary neutral trades, the path to change or improving the team looks incredibly limited at this point. And it’s difficult to marry salaries so perfectly for what gets traded out compared to what gets traded can be tough, and getting lopsided value to improve is unlikely as well. The way to win an unbalanced trade is through cap space.

The NHL saw teams weaponize salary cap space this weekend at the draft. New Jersey acquired P.K. Subban for a song and a dance as Nashville presumably wants to clear space to make room for free agency. Vancouver added J.T. Miller for a first round pick to help Tampa out of their jam. Carolina got gifted a first round pick to take aging Patrick Marleau and help Toronto out.

The common theme? Teams that have room can get assets on the cheap if they flex their muscle and help others out of binds.

Unfortunately for Pittsburgh, they’re a lot closer to being the “team in a bind” rather than being able to exploit and improve because of it.

And their decisions of the last 12 months are the primary reason for it.