The Penguins entered the 2020-21 season in a rare situation for them — they were under the salary cap limit more than most years. In order to cut costs, the Pens managed all off-season with a variety of moves designed to cut actual player costs at the expense of having higher cap hits.
This COVID-related revenue situation was a departure from normal. Pittsburgh was willing to take on players with lower salaries than their cap hits. One example would be Mike Matheson who earns a an actual salary of $3.5 million this year compared to a $4.875 million cap hit. Another is Kasperi Kapanen, whose actual salary is $1.86 million this season for Pittsburgh after Toronto paid a bonus to him, on a $3.2 million cap hit. The team also signed players like Jared McCann and Tristan Jarry that sees their contracts back-loaded to pay more in the later years of their deals to keep payroll down for 2021.
Pittsburgh also used trades and buyouts to remove Nick Bjugstad and Jack Johnson from the roster, and also get off the hook from paying over $4 million in actual expenses this year to those players.
The result was a different financial strategy that sent the Pens into this season where they would bank salary every day, eventually being able to acquire a player (or multiple players) with a full season salaries of up to $8.5 million on trade deadline day.
That is possible because is that the NHL’s salary cap is calculated daily. If a team is under the cap at the start of the season, the concept means towards the end of the season they can use the space that they didn’t use earlier.
This strategy goes out the window when players are injured, replacements must be added to the roster to fill in that count against the salary cap. When high-priced players are injured — as the Pens have dealt with this year seeing Matheson, Brian Dumoulin and Marcus Pettersson all suffer significant injury — this hampers efforts greatly to save space for later in the season.
A common misconception is that using long term injury reserve — where teams are basically allowed to go over the upper limit of the daily cap — is a good development for a team or somehow financially beneficial for them later in the year. This couldn’t really be further from the truth, with the exception being season-ending injuries. In this instance, it can be a positive, since teams can replace those players and then bring back an injured player in the playoffs, when the NHL does not enforce a salary cap.
Since that isn’t the case for the Pens right now, their rash of injuries has not only decimated the team on the ice to lose five NHL caliber defensemen, it has also (temporarily) wrecked their ability to save cap for later in the year.
As of now, Pittsburgh’s injuries have out-paced their salary cap situation. In recent days Dumoulin, Juuso Riikola, Zach Aston-Reese and Evan Rodrigues have all been moved to long-term injury reserve.
What does this mean? In simple terms, the Pens are allowed to exceed the salary cap by $6.9 million while these players are all out, providing them the ability to round out their roster as they have in recent days by signing Yannick Weber, promoting Sam Lafferty, Kevin Czuczman and Pierre-Olivier Joseph from the practice squad to keep a full roster.
But this development also means the Pens are no longer banking space for the rest of the season, and these injuries have robbed an opportunity for more flexibility later on.
What do the LTIR designations tell us about what could happen in the future?
Well, for starters, an important contextual clue is who wasn’t placed on LTIR. Here is the rule for LTIR:
The standard 10 game and 24 day time missed LTIR requirement remains, and the start date for this period begins from the positive COVID test result.
Due to this, and Dumoulin’s retroactive LTIR date of January 26th (and now the postponements of the Devils game this week), the Pens won’t be able to activate Brian Dumoulin until the February 20th game against the Islanders. And, of course, Dumoulin would still have to be healthy enough to play by then anyways, which remains unknown.
But we do know that Dumoulin was placed on LTIR and Matheson and Petterson weren’t, and that’s important. This tells us what the team hasn’t implicitly stated: Dumoulin’s timeline is worse than the other two defensemen, otherwise one of those players would be on LTIR.
Matheson skated with the team in a non-contact jersey in practice last Wednesday, though coach Mike Sullivan indicated his prognosis and timeline wasn’t changed even with a tangible step forward in his progress. Matheson suffered an upper-body injury on January 15th, and since he could have been placed on LTIR retroactively to that date, he would be eligible to get out of LTIR prior to Dumoulin. Matheson was said to be “week-to-week” at the time of his injury.
Logically speaking with the LTIR decisions, the team likely expects Matheson back before February 20th, possibly even well before that date since he has been on the ice.
Similarly, Marcus Pettersson, who has been out following a big hit on January 19th, has not yet practiced, but also would have to be in-line for a mid-February or earlier return. Otherwise his status would make more sense for LTIR placement than Dumoulin.
So what the recent LTIR moves really tell us is that the injury to Dumoulin, time-wise, is seen as the most severe or longest lasting, and the others should be able to come back quicker. That, of course, is not great news, because Dumoulin is the most important of the three players, but it is the hand the team has been dealt.
The other timelines: Riikola was placed on LTIR retroactive to January 19th. Based on the game postponements, his earliest possible return date would be February 16th against Washington.
Rodrigues is on LTIR dated back to January 24th, he will be ineligible to play until at least February 18th.
Overall, due to the flurry of activity and games, it seems like some of these details have been lost in the shuffle a bit, but it has provided a more useful timeline and sets a better course for return than what the Pens have acknowledged.
What appeared to be a somewhat minor or awkward looking incident for Dumoulin will actually keep him out for a sizeable chunk of this condensed season. The LTIR designation is not a positive development for the Pens in this regard, but it at least paints the picture of what to expect in the near future as hopefully the team will be looking to add two defensemen from the injury list in the next 10-14 days in Matheson and Pettersson to a blueline that badly needs the reinforcements. Unfortunately though, Dumoulin won’t be among those coming back anytime soon.