Over the weekend the Pittsburgh Penguins re-signed John Marino to a new six-year, $26.4 million contract extension that will kick in next season.
It was an aggressive move that not only keeps a core player in Pittsburgh for the foreseeable future, it eliminates a potential headache next offseason by not having to deal with the restricted free agent process.
It could also be a shrewd contract if Marino continues on the trajectory he showed during his rookie season. If he builds on that, and quite frankly, even if he simply repeats it year after year, that contract is going to be very team friendly.
Even so, the $4 million cap hit does add to an already pricey investment on the blue line where the Penguins are set up to have one of the most expensive groups in the league over the next two years.
With Marino on an entry-level deal this season the Penguins have $24.2 million committed to their defense, a number that puts them in the top-seven league wide.
Fast forward to next season when Marino’s new deal kicks in, and that salary cap commitment goes up to $26.5 million. As of now, that would be the fourth-most expensive blue line in the NHL, trailing only the San Jose Sharks, Minnesota Wild, and Florida Panthers. Probably not the teams you expected, eh? It is worth pointing out a couple of other teams are in the same general area and could either match or exceed that number with signings or re-signings or trades. But still, as of this moment, few teams in the league have made a greater commitment to their defense financially than the Penguins.
Kris Letang through 2022 at $7.5 million per season
Brian Dumoulin through 2023 at $4.1 million per season
Marcus Pettersson through 2025 at $4.02 million per season
Michael Matheson through 2026 at $4.8 million per season
John Marino through 2028 at $4.4 million per season
Then you have a couple of short-term deals in Jusso Rikkola, Chad Ruhwedel, and Cody Ceci that expire over the next year or two.
How do we feel about this?
For starters, I do not think that is a bad defense by any means. At least in the short-term. In fact, the top-four has the potential to be excellent over the next two years, while the bottom pairing of Matheson and Ceci should — emphasis on SHOULD — be an upgrade over what they had a year ago.
You also have to consider the possibility that Letang does not get another contract here. His current deal expires the same time as Evgeni Malkin and Bryan Rust. Some decisions are going to have to be made, and at that point Letang will be 35 years old. As much as I love his game and his career, I am not sure there is room for another contract there. As long as Malkin wants to re-sign here, he will. Rust could still be at an age where he has something to offer. I do not know if there is room for a 35-plus defenseman given that we have no idea what the salary cap will look like.
In the short-term, I can not envision a scenario where Letang, Dumoulin, or Marino get moved. As long as the Penguins think they have a championship window over the next two years those three are going to be a part of it. They are too good, and their value to the Penguins as defensemen are far greater than their potential value as trade chips. They are staying.
Pettersson and Matheson are the interesting ones. Especially Matheson because we really have no idea how he is going to fit, and he carries such a massive contract. That sort of contract is a major commitment. He has the second highest cap hit on the blue line, and is under contract longer than anyone on the roster other than Marino (at this point). That is not the type of investment you make in a third-pairing defender.
Do the Penguins see him as more than that long-term? Would a big season from him this year help them view him as more than a third-pair? That also might be a difficult contract to move out again without taking on salary back in return, or retaining salary from it. He is a fascinating player, and it seems important for him to have a big year. I like his skillset, I like the dimension he brings to the blue line, but I have to see it.
Pettersson is the one I could see maybe potentially being on the move at some point. He is a really good player, but I do wonder how much more upside there is. I feel like at this point (his age 24 season, more than 150 games of NHL experience) we have a pretty sense of what he is going to be going forward. But with so many other $4+ million contracts on the defense, with such limited salary cap space elsewhere, and so many questions with forward depth (and maybe goaltending?) he would strike me as a potential trade chip. Especially if Matheson shows he can be capable of playing in a top-four role. Let us also not forget the Pierre-Oliver Joseph and his potential future.
Bottom line, this is an expensive defense for the next two years. But I think it has a chance to be a pretty good one, especially if they get enough goaltending from Tristan Jarry and Casey DeSmith to make it all worth it.