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The Penguins’ salary cap situation after acquiring Jason Zucker

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A look at the financial impacts after the Jason Zucker trade

Tampa Bay Lightning v Pittsburgh Penguins Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images

Perhaps lost in the shuffle a bit about the excitement of adding a new player is that the Penguins greatly shifted the future focus of their team when they acquired Jason Zucker earlier this week. Not only did it send out two good, young future assets in Calen Addison and a first round pick, but Zucker also carries a $5.5 million cap hit for the following three seasons.

If you like financial outlooks and projecting the future, this is certainly of interest to how will the Pens accommodate that type of fairly large salary to add moving forward? The team did trade Alex Galchenyuk and his $4.9 million salary cap hit to almost “balance the books” for this season. They also have Justin Schultz and his $5.5 million cap hit expiring, which is nearly entirely already spoken for being as the team agreed to extend Marcus Pettersson at a $4.025 million salary (up from his bargain rate of $874k this season).

The Pens’ major off-season moves will be dealing with restricted free agents. Both NHL goalies in Matt Murray and Tristan Jarry need new contracts. Jared McCann does too after finding a home and niche in Pittsburgh. The two Dominik’s (Kahun and Simon) are also up for new deals.

It will be a lot to work through. Via CapFriendly, here’s an early outlook of the base structure the Penguins have on the books right now.

That’s a base of 16 players under contract for a total of $68.275 million cap hits for 2020-21. It leaves $13.324 million in cap space under this season’s $81.5m upper limit. With an important note here that the upper limit has incrementally increased every season, so in all actuality this will likely be approximately $15-16 million cap space, give or take a bit.

The important thing is what that $68m has paid for. A solid cast of a top-4 defense. Elite center skill. And now, growing winger skill with Zucker joining Bryan Rust and Jake Guentzel next year. That’s an awesome collection of talent there, even if it includes a bit of fat in the form of a couple of bad contracts (stares at unnammed overpaid defenseman...)

Is $16 million enough to re-sign the goalies, McCann, Kahun and then depth players like Simon and Juuso Riikola (or their replacements)? That is the big question the Pens have.

Judging from how Pittsburgh handled 2019, there’s little reason to be concerned about how the team will choose to navigate their financial straits. That won’t stop the internet from being on pins and needles all summer again this year like it was last, but last year’s salary crunch seemed a tougher one. And it was easily side-stepped when GM Jim Rutherford simply traded Erik Gudbranson and his $4.0m salary to Anaheim for nothing.

Is Nick Bjugstad 2020’s Gudbranson? Possibly. Teddy Blueger has basically performed third line center duties all season due to various injuries to Bjugstad, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, and Blueger has excelled.

Patric Hornqvist’s situation will be interesting to watch too. Hornqvist has a full no trade clause for the 2020-21 season, though his contractual powers decrease to only an eight team no trade list for 2021-22. The smart money or outlook at this point seems to point to a Hornqvist trade in 2021 as being a lot more likely than this year in 2020, but he could be a candidate, and who knows, perhaps even willing to move on if he is relegated to a fourth line role. Plenty of time for that speculation later on though.

The goaltending situation off the ice will be as fascinating to watch unfold as it has been on the ice this year. How much do you pay Matt Murray now? He was shaky early in the season but has a .924 save% and 5-1-1 record in his last seven games. The next two-four months likely goes a LONG way to determining what kind of deal Murray plays himself into (or out of). Murray, who turns 26 this spring, is also rapidly — if quietly — approaching unrestricted free agency after the 2021-22 season.

Similarly, Tristan Jarry has been great this season but will he enter contract negotiations as the undisputed starting playoff goalie? Or just a rising star?

And on top of all of that, Casey DeSmith is signed for next season at a relatively reasonable $1.25m rate. Rutherford loves, loves, loves, his goalie depth, but he’s also seen around the league that high-price goalies (Sergei Bobrovsky, Braden Holtby, Jonathan Quick, Pekka Rinne, Marc-Andre Fleury, Henrik Lundqvist) all have below league average save percentages this year. (As does Murray, currently). Does it make sense to pay ANY goalie big money and years? Or are the Pens better off riding one of Jarry/Murray and having DeSmith to back him up and more money available to re-sign guys like Kahun and McCann?

Those are all mostly questions that can’t be answered at this point, because there’s still a season to play out. These questions could answer themselves — Murray could keep his .923% down the stretch, get 16 more wins this spring and then obviously he’s going to get a long-term, big money deal. Or he might stumble and not do those things and make it clear it’s not the right time to bet on him.

Either way, the Pens salary structure next season is saved by players like John Marino, Sam Laffery and Blueger who can all play roles for under $1m against the cap next season.

Pittsburgh may well need to explore trimming down by trading a veteran with a fairly high contract (Jack Johnson, Bjugstad, Hornqvist), but overall their team is pretty stable and will be fine to about do what they want in terms of which young players that they want to bring back for next season.

The real question — and drama, and intrigue — will be in the net as far as how that situation unfolds. As it has been for a while.