The Pittsburgh Penguins’ salary bind will shape their next off-season. The NHL and NHLPA have to come a “memorandum of understanding”, which will serve as the guidance for the next six years of collectively bargained landscape of the league*. In the new economic landscape of a world still dealing with a pandemic, the impact will be shared by the players and league alike. The upper limit of the salary cap for the 2020-21 season will be $81.5 million, the same amount it was in 2019-20. It will remain at $81.5 million until “preliminary HRR for the just-completed league year surpasses $4.8 billion.”
What does that mean for the Pens? Probably not a worst case scenario, being as the salary cap isn’t coming down. Still, this is a team with $68.2 million of salary commitments on the book for next season for only 15 players, with several key decisions ahead.
(*Still needs to be approved on both sides, but at this point that is expected to happen)
The Penguins roster was always built to be tweaked and adjusted. No team that we see is able ever to return the exact same, and that will certainly be the case this year. Here are the players most likely to not be back in 2020-21 due to the need to tighten up financially.
The goalie situation will be the biggest key to the off-season, since both NHL goaltenders in Murray and Tristan Jarry are restricted free agents. Both also have arbitration rights and can seek short-term deals through that. Much has already been made about Murray’s next contract and at one year shy of unrestricted free agency, Murray is in a weird spot. He just had statistically the worst season of his five-year NHL career. But he also owns two Stanley Cups and has been at times an excellent goalie. The question will be, what do the Penguins pay him on and how much can and should they commit? It doesn’t have an answer yet, but the easiest might be to move on.
Or, Murray could play well and the team might decide to commit to him, either short or longer term. The possible paths and outcomes feel very undecided, but what is known is that Murray is close to free agency and arbitration could push the team to have to make a decision on whether or not he is the future at that position.
Many close observers of the Pens believe Bjugstad’s days in Pittsburgh are about over after a injury-riddled 2019-20 season that limited him to only 13 games this season and has likely ended his playoff before it began due to a spinal surgery this spring.
But many teams out there will be looking to shed expensive players. There’s always a myth about dumping a player to a team “needing to find the cap floor” but these teams simply do not exist. The cap floor was (and still will be) $60.2 million. The lowest team in the NHL, the New Jersey Devils, had a $72.7 million cap hit this year, per CapFriendly. The Devils already have $55 million on the books next year for 13 players, so they will not have any financial reason to need to add a perceived injury-prone player. Ditto Ottawa, who has $42 million on the books next year for only about half a team (13 players). There’s no such thing as a small market that needs bad salary.
To that end, the Pens may have to retain some of Bjugstad’s salary in a trade. A buyout would also save them $3.5 million in 2020-21 and might also have to be considered if no trade can be found. That would leave a $1.75m amount of dead money in 2021-22. The Pens have never bought out a player before, but they have been stuck with cap penalties over the years, including this year due to Jake Guentzel hitting some bonuses, and have always sought any avenue to compete.
The Pens have had no worse player over the past two years, so getting out of the last three years of the always poor $3.25 million cap hit would be a Godsend.
A buyout for Johnson would still leave a scar for six years:
Letting six years of dead space may prove unpalatable, but it may be the only way to save money. Last year when the Pens attempted to trade Johnson, they would have had to take back $4.0 million in the form of forward Victor Rask (who at least had one year less on his contract remaining).
But, in a narrow view, a buyout would accomplish the goal of saving money, which is a step the team will need to take. Take a $1.1m penalty for next year for Johnson and plug in Pierre-Olivier Joseph on his entry level contract ($925,000 cap hit) or re-sign Juuso Riikola or find some other depth defender for a million dollars and the Pens would save over a million bucks in the 2020-21 season. over just keeping Johnson on his $3.25m cap hit. Not to mention the natural addition by subtraction (“No player [in the whole league] was less valuable to his team” ) that would come with the on-ice performance benefit of ditching a terrible player.
Say that Murray plays and plays well this playoff and the Pens keep him. And Jarry’s arbitration yields him a salary in the $2-3 million range. Pittsburgh may not be able to afford — or may decide they don’t want to pay that much — for a backup goalie. Especially with the perfectly reliable Casey DeSmith still in the organization on a $1.75m cap hit. It’s very unique and unsettled place for Jarry to be in, an NHL all-star in his rookie season, but one who isn’t quite the starter and who needs to find a role and a contract for next season.
The Pens may well hold onto Jarry (and probably will if they can make the money work) but the forces of arbitration could prevent that. And a lot of Jarry’s future, both in role and opportunity, is tied into what Murray does or doesn’t do in the return to play. Which is a fascinating place to be, with many possible outcomes. By December Jarry could be entrenched firmly as Pittsburgh’s No. 1 goalie. Or be out of the organization totally. Or somewhere in between. That’s a pretty wide-open course that this could go on.
Hornqvist’s hefty $5.3 million salary should put him in the conversation for considering a trade, but he also owns a full no trade clause in 2020-21. Would he waive it if asked, especially with the knowledge he’s been gradually moved onto a third line and away from Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin at even strength? Maybe. But that’s his call to make, and sticking in Pittsburgh for one more run without uprooting his young family might be a priority too. So with that at mind, Hornqvist is at the bottom here. If the Pens want to cut some salary, trading him is the last thing they should count on.