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A look at how the Penguins’ roster, salary cap shapes up after Jared McCann’s re-signing

Looking at the on-ice product and the salary cap situation of the Pittsburgh Penguins after the club announced a Friday re-signing of forward Jared McCann

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Avalanche take on the Penguins Photo by RJ Sangosti/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images

The Penguins had a decision to make about Jared McCann. Either keep or trade looked to be the options for the team in their quest to shake up the roster but also present a younger and faster version of the team for next season.

Pittsburgh may have had that in mind, re-signing the 24-year old McCann to a two year deal.

Also, as an aside, it seems McCann’s youth gets slept on or forgotten about. Though he has played 310 career NHL regular season games, McCann was the second youngest player for the Pens in 2019-20 (only John Marino being younger). McCann is a full year younger than Sam Lafferty and Tristan Jarry, two players often thought of as “youngsters”.

Anyways, the Pens will apparently give McCann another shot somewhere on the third line, though it’s debatable if he can help at center more or on the wing. He’s played a little of both in Pittsburgh, to varying degrees of success or disappointment.

Overall McCann has 25 goals and 27 assists in 98 career games with the Pens, which is pretty strong considering almost none of that is power play production. Though streaky — McCann famously finished the season on a personal 25-game goal drought and didn’t score from mid-January on — that’s still pretty good levels of offensive contributions.

And, perhaps harder to grade or see, but McCann graded out very strongly this season in xGA and even strength defense while on the ice, in addition to his above average even strength offense and shooting.

Another big aspect of this off-season is just how much the Penguins will spend. It’s been reported the team will look to cut player payroll to keep expenses down, with an uncertain 2020-21 season ahead in terms of such basics as: when the season will start, how many games it will be composed of, and if/how many fans will be allowed to attend.

With that in mind, the team now has a salary cap hit of $74,590,175 on their books, with an upper limit on the NHL’s salary cap of $81,500,000, leaving approximately $6.9 million in current space to spend, if they want. (This calculation also includes the $2.05 million cap penalty the Pens are eating in the trade that sent Nick Bjugstad to Minnesota)

While that doesn’t seem like a lot of space, it is in the context of what Pittsburgh still has open. They have 19 players on the books for next season:

Forwards (11): Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jake Guentzel, Jason Zucker, Bryan Rust, Kasperi Kapanen / Patric Hornqvist, Jared McCann, Brandon Tanev, Teddy Blueger, Zach Aston-Reese*

Defensemen (7): Kris Letang, Brian Dumoulin, Marcus Pettersson, John Marino, Juuso Riikola, Chad Ruhwedel, Jack Johnson

Goalies (1): Casey DeSmith

*An August shoulder surgery is expected to keep Aston-Reese out six months, which will likely include the start of next season

To that end, it’s also pretty interesting that the Pens have pushed back a lot of McCann’s salary to the 2021-22 season, where presumably life will be normal (more normal?) and they can afford to spend more. This also continues a trend where the Pens are looking to spend less, they’re getting McCann on a $2.94m cap hit, but only having to pay him $2.5 million in real money next season.

So, overall if you’re interested in such an in-the-weeds financial look at the situation, the Penguins have a total actual player payroll (including 50% of Bjugstad’s salary) of $72,185,175 for next season, even though their salary cap number is $74,590,175.

That’s a $2.4 million in real savings, a number largely pushed through by the way McCann’s contract was setup this year, and the way Kasperi Kapanen’s contract was written and having had Toronto pay a majority of his bonuses already.

From that angle, Rutherford is clearly managing now more than ever to keep overall expenses down, and he’s accomplishing that mission. It’s almost certain that the Penguins will have less actual player payroll than the NHL’s upper limit of the salary cap. That’s a reality of the world right now, #InTheseUncertainTimes.

As, Rutherford told The Athletic:

“Everyone wants to get rid of salary right now,” Jim Rutherford said. “But everyone still wants to win. It’s why so many teams are talking with one another right now. It’s just a tough spot for a lot of teams.”

There’s still work to do, though. The team still has a few key restricted free agents to sign: Lafferty, Jarry, Dominik Simon, Matt Murray and Anthony Angello being chief among them. However, it’s not expected that all the RFA’s will be back (everyone cuts eyes at Murray).

With $7 million in cap space, the Pens likely have the room to bring back the players they want (Jarry, Lafferty, Simon being top guesses) and seeing what is left to move forward with.

GM Jim Rutherford mentioned his efforts to clear Bjugstad’s salary were designed to open up salary cap room for free agents, so the off-season tinkering of the roster won’t be relegated to simply trading Murray.

Rutherford promised an off-season of change, and simply letting a few free agents go (Patrick Marleau and Justin Schultz) and trading for Kasperi Kapanen is hardly much change, especially for a prolific roster-builder like Rutherford.

Will a major salary piece still be dealt? Patric Hornqvist’s name was listed by TSN as a top-10 player who could be traded today (though, perhaps tellingly, they omitted all mention of Hornqvist’s full no trade clause).

The dream of a Jack Johnson buyout won’t die here until the window ends. On one hand, it doesn’t make sense to leave six years of dead salary cap space. On the other hand, Rutherford’s shown he will eat dead cap space for an ill-fitting player, which he did with Bjugstad.

And in this climate, if you’re the Pens do you want to pay Jack Johnson $3.0 in real salary next season to play and give near league-worst results? Or buy him out for a $916,667 cost and save money for this season?

Having a convenient “we still like the guy but needed to save some money and have young players like Riikola and Pierre-Olivier Jospeh” is a nice built-in way for Rutherford to save face on addressing his disastrous free agent signing. We’ll all give a wink and a smile and chalk it up to that.

As far as Jared McCann goes, his spot on the team doesn’t look obvious just yet. Is he the third line center moving forward? Or a winger on the third line who can slide up into a bigger role when injuries inevitably strike?

Either way, the Pens got a really good deal to save money and get McCann signed to this reasonable contract and avoid arbitration. He’s still a pretty quality young piece for a team that has very little talent in the 20-25 age group, so bringing that back is probably a net positive for the team. Now they just have to figure out what to do with him. (More on that tomorrow).