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The Penguins need to make a trade to solve their salary cap crunch

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With young Marcus Pettersson still to sign and a team pushed to the cap limit, Pittsburgh needs to find a way to trim salary in a trade

Pittsburgh Penguins v Winnipeg Jets

In recent days the Pittsburgh Penguins have re-signed two of their restricted free agents to very reasonable contracts. Center Teddy Blueger got a one-way contract for two years at $750,000 per year. Winger Zach Aston-Reese is locked down for two years at $1.0 million per season.

These two moves have essentially used up all of the Pens’ space under the 2019-20 NHL salary cap. The upper limit is $81.5 million per team, but Pittsburgh is handicapped in the amount of $132,500 due to bonus overages from last year - essentially making the Pens’ cap at $81.3675 million.

The team has basically $542,500 in remaining space at the moment, with 22 roster players — and still Marcus Pettersson to re-sign. Here’s a look from CapFriendly:

Obviously something is going to have to give here. Even if the team decides to go with seven defensemen and drop one of Chad Ruhwedel or Juuso Riikola to the AHL, that’s still not enough. From many reports, the Pens would like to give Pettersson a long-term deal, perhaps one that starts with a “$3” figure on it in yearly salary. And they’ll need as much cap space as possible for the future to bank for a trade deadline addition or just natural injury call-ups during the season.

Thus, it doesn’t do a ton of help to trade ONE $3-4 million player just to again turnaround and sign Pettersson to a deal worth $3-4 million per year. The Pens need a special trade, we know that, but ideally they need it to be one that sends as much salary out the door as possible.

NHL teams probably aren’t going to be jumping at the prospect of helping a competitor that is in a bind. In fact, they definitely won’t be doing that. Everyone around the league will know Pittsburgh needs to shed some salary, but won’t be lining up to accomplish that alone. The Pens will need to have willing partners thinking they are upgrading their teams to make a deal realistic.

Hell, drop the word “think”, Pittsburgh might actually have to make it so they are improving other teams to clear salary.

The big wild card in this mix is Jack Johnson. He was the team’s worst performing defenseman, he’s not worth keeping, gotsta go situation. The whole key to what happens next, in a great world, is finding a way to ticket him out of ‘tahn’.

The question then becomes- who will take him and how much will it cost? Will it take using Bryan Rust? A first round pick? A prospect, even such as Sam Poulin? Everything needs to be considered.

Many lament that since Johnson still has four years left on his contract, he’s tough or impossible to trade. That shouldn’t be the case. Even this summer Nikita Zaitsev got traded with five years on his contract. Tyler Myers got handed a five year deal. Ben Chariot is a similar defenseman to Johnson and signed a similar deal (three years, $3.5 million per). Teams still make curious (read: bad) decisions on defensemen all the time.

Where there is a will, there is a way. The tougher item now might be finding a landing spot for JJ. We’ve discussed teams before, and concluded that when it comes to Jack Johnson:

Anaheim, Montreal and Vancouver seem like the best bets based on need, contracts and management style

That’s a limited amount of teams to begin with, and some have taken action since then. Montreal made that Chariot signing and still has the Karl Alzner albatross contract on the books. Vancouver made a very shrewd and good signing in Jordie Benn for two years at $2.0 million to go along with the not-so-shrewd big money deal for Myers while also re-upping veteran Alex Edler for two more years. So at this point we can probably take MTL and VAN out of the running for another expensive veteran depth defenseman.

But what about Anaheim? They’ve been quiet this summer and could use a defenseman. They’ve signed Michael Del Zotto but still have what could be an opening for a third pair left side defenseman.

The Pens and Ducks have made multiple trades together recently and clearly have a good working relationship. Can it be leveraged again so that Pittsburgh can fix their salary concerns?

At this point, beyond salary, the Pens may have misguided loyalty to Jack Johnson to not want to weaken their left side defense. Deal Johnson and Olli Maatta and that creates a problem in bodies there. Never-mind at this point it’s basically a wash to play JJ or Juuso Riikola there, it’s still evident that depth could be a sticking point.

Now we get a little tricky. Can the Pens flip Johnson and get a defenseman back to alleviate any concerns of depth? All the while still creating cap space to re-sign Pettersson?

It’s a tricky set of questions that will require a deft touch to accomplish all the goals while remaining cap compliant. Luckily for Pittsburgh, their GM has navigated waters like this up against the salary cap, trying to improve the team. The answer is a three team deal.

Thus, an idea forms -

To Anaheim:

Jack Johnson, Pittsburgh 2020 first round pick

To Buffalo:

Bryan Rust, Anaheim 2020 fifth round pick

To Pittsburgh:

Jake McCabe (restricted free agent)

What each team gives up:

Pittsburgh: Rust, Johnson, first round pick

Anaheim: Fifth round pick

Buffalo: McCabe

Salary differences:

Pittsburgh: -$6.75 million (while having to sign McCabe, which is reasonably thought to be a two year deal in the range a bit north of $2million per)

Anaheim: +$3.25 million (currently $8.5 million under the cap with no restricted free agents left to re-sign)

Buffalo: +$3.5 million (currently $5.1 million under the cap, with RFA Evan Rodrigues)

Potential hangups:

Pittsburgh: would they actually give up a first round pick to shed a bad/player contract? And are they comfortable dealing Rust away?

Anaheim: do they have any desire to bring Jack Johnson in? Is adding an extra first round pick worth it?

Buffalo: do they need/want Rust after signing Marcus Johansson? Is there the space or need at this point?

Any of the hang-ups could obviously derail this whole trade suggestion. We don’t have all the information so there’s reason that each side might walk away. That’s why three-team trades don’t happen a lot.

However, this idea at least does satisfy goals for each. Pittsburgh gets cap compliant (at a price) and would be better off for next year on the ice. Anaheim gets a sweetener and a third pair veteran defenseman, basically for free. Buffalo adds another top-9 forward and fills a need on the right wing.

If this somehow did come to pass, here’s a potential look at the way the Pens would look, with plenty of cap space even if they kept eight healthy defensemen (which rarely happens but that’s a talk for a different day).

This exact deal might not cut it or many reasons, but the overall idea should be what the Pens are working towards. Cutting salary somewhere to re-sign Pettersson is a must. The opportunity to add to the on-ice results by dropping the team’s weakest performer in Johnson should be finagled in as well, if at all possible. At this point, it’s the best way to salvage the off-season and put the best skate forward for 2019-20.