Astute fans of the Pittsburgh Penguins have noticed a big problem as the team prepares to begin the 2019-20 season. The Pens are basically out of salary cap space, and as a result talented youngster Marcus Pettersson remains an unsigned restricted free agent.
As a result, most of the summer has been spent wondering when the other shoe will drop and the team will cut their salary to make room for Pettersson. Speculation has gone around for most players that make a salary and don’t have a restrictive no trade clause; from Bryan Rust to Nick Bjugstad to even Justin Schultz or Erik Gudbranson or...if we could be so lucky, the one and only Jack Johnson himself.
However, what if the answer all along is the Pens trade no one and sign Pettersson.
Seems too good to be true, right? General manager Jim Rutherford recently floated such a possibility in The Athletic.
To [re-sign Pettersson to a long-term deal], the Penguins would need to make a move — Rutherford conceded it would involve a forward — before the start of the regular season. The other option is for the Penguins and Petterson to agree on a short-term contract (a “bridge deal,” as they’ve become known) and go through all of this again either next year or the year after.
“We don’t have to make any moves to be cap compliant to start the season,” Rutherford said, referring to a potential short-term deal with Pettersson. But if the deal is for the longer term, which would mean a bump into the least $3 million range for Pettersson, Rutherford added: “We’d have to make moves to be cap compliant for opening night — moves we don’t want to do.”
But....how could this be possible? Can the Penguins really not need to trade a forward and still be able to re-sign Pettersson? Does such a scenario exist without jumping over hurdles the team could but almost certainly won’t do (like sending Johnson to the minors and gaining $1m of cap relief)? Can a solution be found that they actually might entertain?
The short answer is yes.
It wouldn’t be perfect, but they just might be able to squeeze Pettersson’s salary in — though probably not for full year. According to CapFriendly, there’s a way to manufacture $1,392,500 of cap space for the Pens.
This would present a roster of-
Forwards (13 players for a $50.175m cap hit)
Jake Guentzel - Sidney Crosby - Bryan Rust
Alex Galchenyuk - Evgeni Malkin - Dominik Kahun
Dominik Simon - Nick Bjugstad - Patric Hornqvist
Brandon Tanev - Teddy Blueger - Jared McCann
Extra: Zach Aston-Reese
Defense (6 players for a $24.8m hit)
Brian Dumoulin / Kris Letang
___________ / Justin Schultz
Jack Johnson / Erik Gudbranson
(The placeholder spot is obviously for Pettersson once he is signed)
Extra: Chad Ruhwedel
Goalies (2 for a $5.0 million cap hit)
Matt Murray and Casey DeSmith
You can rotate the forwards around as you see fit (and heaven knows Mike Sullivan will too by about the second period of the first game), this was built primarily to get an idea of what options are on the table.
Add in the $.1325m ($132,500) cap bonus overage from last season that Pittsburgh accrued and that’s where CapFriendly gets the $80.1075m cap hit in the graphic above, to go against the 2019-20 upper limit of $81.5m this season. Which leaves $1.3925 open for Pittsburgh, who would have to give Pettersson a contract from this amount.
The Pens in this instance would simply be demoting Juuso Riikola and his $850,000 cap hit to Wilkes-Barre, as well as other expected cuts like to Zach Trotman, Oula Palve and Adam Johnson. Doing all that creates the $1.3925m worth of space and provides one extra forward and defender to round out the team. Instead of Riikola, they could conceivably cut Ruhwedel and save his salary against the cap ($700,000) too and have about $1.1m in space.
Going with seven healthy defensemen is an NHL standard practice, so either way it makes a bit of sense that one of Riikola/Ruhwdel at this point probably doesn’t need to be in Pittsburgh taking away cap space as a reserve-reserve player who won’t be playing games.
So, technically from the GM’s quote above, this is how Rutherford is making a factual statement that the Penguins don’t HAVE to make any trades before the start of the season. Simply waive a superfluous depth defender and the team gains a bit of space needed to sign Pettersson. That would be a very tight squeeze and put them in a huge bind when it comes to future injury call-ups and absolutely cripple their options for in-season trade possibilities, but it is a very feasible and realistic option on the table.
One possible sticking point would be, why would Pettersson sign that when strong indications were earlier in the summer the Pens wanted to sign him to a long-term deal that would have been worth probably $3+ million annually? Seems spurious at best, if you’re Pettersson or his agent you don’t want a short deal for a small salary, you obviously want to lock-in for as much as possible that pays as soon as possible.
But Pettersson has no arbitration rights this off-season and no leverage. If he wants to play NHL hockey this season, he’s going to have to do it on the Pens’ terms as far as what they can offer. If they can’t do a long-term deal now — and if they don’t make a trade to drop salary they can’t — then that’s just a tough business aspect for Pettersson.
If Pettersson can go out, play well and establish himself as a top-four defender this season, that will help his cause for next summer when he does have arbitration rights. By then, Pettersson could get a deal like Olli Maatta or Brian Dumoulin to get $4 million per year on a long term deal. (Even though, well, the Pens don’t look like they have that kind of money available either, but that’s a different problem for a different time).
Ultimately, a team needs some wiggle room, so they can’t just sign Pettersson for, say $1.2m one year deal and think of the salary cap as solved — it certainly wouldn’t be once injuries creep in.
But, really, if you’re waiting on a tweet that announces a major trade, it may not need to be in the works either. The Pens conceivably could sign Pettersson to a one-year deal and just barely scrape under the salary cap. As we have been all summer, now all that’s left is the waiting to see which route they end up taking.