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Ron Hextall and the search for cap space

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Where will the Penguins try to find room for next season to make improvements?

Pittsburgh Penguins v Washington Capitals Photo by Patrick McDermott/NHLI via Getty Images

In discussing free agency, the Penguins only have a few players to re-sign or replace, but some play some important roles like Cody Ceci, Teddy Blueger and Zach Aston-Reese.

The big problem for the Penguins, is that they don’t have a lot of cap space. The majority of the team that was signed for last year is signed for this year. The Nick Bjugstad salary retention from his trade disappears, but John Marino’s salary with a hefty raise off his entry level contract kicks in.

While it’s a good thing for new GM Ron Hextall that many key pieces remain in place — a core that he seems committed to largely keeping in tact after a division winning year — it also comes with a problem. Salary cap space is almost non-existent in this world where the NHL cap is not rising from the $81.5 million upper limit.

Here’s an outlook from CapFriendly about where the Pens stand for 2021-22 (no need to get too attached to the lines, more just to show which players are signed to play where).

Under this outlook, the Pens have just $1.3 million available, two sign two more forwards.

However, this lineup of players under contract won’t be exactly how the team looks on opening night. For instance, it’s not very practical to carry eight defensemen and the logjam of depth players needs to be addressed for players with contracts at the bottom of the lineup. (Especially with prospect Pierre-Olivier Joseph getting closer to making a full-time NHL jump). If the Pens want to go a different route and waive or bury fringe level depth players like Sam Lafferty, Anthony Angello and Juuso Riikola in the minors that will free up more space:

Suddenly that looks better, with almost $4 million available to work with, yet the Pens would need to sign a full fourth line worth of players and that space would disappear quickly if they are able to bring back players like Aston-Reese and/or Blueger.

If the Penguins are to make any major changes, it will likely be a multi-step effort that will require swapping out players who make a decent salary. It can’t be totally eliminated that perhaps Seattle will take take Jason Zucker in the expansion draft, should be be offered. That would give a lot more cap space to the Pens, but also create a sizeable loss of skill and ability in their forward group.

With five fairly high-priced defensemen, it would make sense to trim down there if possible. Though the only players here Pittsburgh probably would move (like Mike Matheson or Marcus Pettersson) are players that won’t have a lot of value in a cap-strapped world with all the money and years still remaining on their contracts.

As if that isn’t enough, Hextall might also have to consider what to do with Bryan Rust. Rust is a key player on the Pens, but also an unrestricted free agent after next season. Do the Pens strategize this like so many other players over the years where they let them play out the final year of their contracts, only to leave for nothing as a free agent? Or consider extending him now? It’s difficult to imagine they could move him for a player that would fit their short-term goals and be affordable against a $3.5 million cap hit.

It presents an interesting challenge for Hextall. On one hand, he has a division winning team, he’s also looking to give them a boost for the next last best shot in the Sidney Crosby-Evgeni Malkin era.

As Hextall said in his season-ending press conference —

“There’s not a lot [of size to add] out there. We’ll make adjustments. But if we go into next season with this group, we’re comfortable with that....Teams that have those top guys aren’t going to part with it. If we can find it and the price is reasonable, we’ll certainly do it. But we’re comfortable with our team. We had a real good regular season and played well in the playoffs. That doesn’t mean we won’t look to get better. We will.”

It’s a good thing Hextall is comfortable with his team. He doesn’t have much cap space to make sweeping changes. If he wants to find ways to “get better”, he will have to find a way around a very tight salary cap situation.