The NHL’s salary cap era is 15 years old, and one function to help teams pare away ineffective, expensive veterans from their rosters is a short buyout window that opens in the off-season. But it comes at a cost, teams must absorb 2⁄3 of the remaining cap hit for veterans over a period twice as long as the existing contract.
The Penguins are one of a handful of teams that have never utilized a buyout, which is a testament to generally good cap management over the years. Pens’ fans haven’t always loved every deal on the books, but there was a period of time when Pittsburgh’s “worst” contract value was probably paying hands-of-stone forward Carl Hagelin a $4 million cap hit to be a very good all-around third line forward. Those were known as the happy days.
Now, times are tougher. The Pens have appeared old, ineffective —and the worst insult of all of a hockey team — uninterested in the last two playoff series. The creaking sound of the window closing is picking up speed, notable the summer as Evgeni Malkin turned 34 and Sidney Crosby celebrated his 33rd birthday.
The mandate now seems to be getting younger, leaner and reworking the supporting players around Crosby and Malkin. This is a pretty good idea, being as the Pens’ lower lines and third pair defense were total liabilities in the series against Montreal. If a team isn’t going to change it’s core, they need to shuffle around as much as possible on the periphery.
For Pittsburgh some of that will come with unrestricted free agency. Soon-to-be 41 year old Patrick Marleau will depart, in a move bound to make the Pens younger no matter how they replace his spot next season. Justin Schultz at 30 isn’t exactly an old, but he certainly has played like it since a major injury in 2018. Dropping Schultz and moving on in a new direction will help the Pens there as well.
But of course, that won’t be enough. Two huge chances to have addition by subtraction and improve the Pens’ on the ice and in the pocketbook will be to lose Jack Johnson (three years remaining on a $3.25m cap hit) and Nick Bjugstad ($4.1m remaining for one year).
Doubtlessly, the team would prefer to trade each player than leave a scar of a buyout. That is common sense and goes without saying.
The issue becomes how does a team trade an ineffective/expensive and undesirable player? Especially in a world we live in now with a flat salary cap and many teams in the same boat of wanting to dump bad players/contracts, not pick them up.
The answer is equally undesirable: they will trade them for other bad players/contracts. Jack Johnson was one Phil Kessel no trade clause block away from being traded last summer to Minnesota. That’s great news, right? Certainly in a way since Johnson is one of the worst defenders in the league who costs his team innumerable scoring chances and goals against.
But the problem is forward Victor Rask ($4.0m cap hit, though one year less than Johnson) would have been sent to Pittsburgh. Rask isn’t going to offer all that much, and it doesn’t save the Pens any real money to do that.
Which is why a trade may not be possible. So the options shift to either “keep very bad player who is old and expensive” or buy him out. Here’s what that looks like for Johnson’s remaining contact per CapFriendly:
Are the Pens — a team that reportedly wants to spend less money — really going to pay $7 million to send a player away? That would probably be an uncomfortable ask in upper level management meetings to explain that one away.
However, it would save money and improve the team. One, it drops Johnson the team’s worst and oldest defender. So in and of itself a buyout accomplishes stated off-season goals to get younger and better. In the short term, paying Johnson $1.1 million to be gone leaves money to find a replacement and still save on the $3.25 million the Pens are set to pay Johnson for his poor services.
That said, six years of dead space is a long time. It’s a tough pill to swallow, but this management team just signed a fourth line player to an expensive six year contract last summer, basically with the mindset of “hey, the window will be closed then anyways”. The Pens probably aren’t going to be going anywhere in 2025, the idea is to at least make it so they improve on what they’ve done in 2019 and 2020.
If Bjugstad can’t be moved given his injury history, his buyout looks even more attractive:
At only a $600,000 penalty for next season, the Pens should absolutely strongly consider a Bjugstad buyout if his trade market is soft. That leaves $3.5 million to find a replacement that could actually stay in the lineup and help the team.
If the Pens were to buyout both Johnson and Bjugstad — which admittedly is probably unlikely in the real world, but roll with it — they would have $17.3 million of cap space with 15 players already under contract (9F, 4D and this includes Casey DeSmith as an NHL backup). They still would have to re-sign their restricted free agents with presumably Jared McCann, Dominik Simon, Sam Lafferty and Tristan Jarry the most likely to be brought back.
And at that point they would have significant space, assuming they were able to spend it, to address adding more defensive depth, or trying to find forwards to round out the team.
Be it for budgetary reasons, performance, or both, the Pens may not be able to avoid the landscape of buyouts much longer. Their team needs the improvement and additional financial flexibility. And a small bit of dead cap space is less harmful than trading a bad contract for another bad contract.