On Tuesday the Minnesota Wild made the shocking announcement that they are going to buy out the remaining years on the contracts for Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, taking on a massive salary cap penalty in the coming seasons.
The two arrived in Minnesota back in the summer of 2012 on matching — and massive — 13-year super-contracts that have since been done away with by the league.
The Wild found little success with the duo and are buying them out with four years remaining on those deals.
Why is this relevant to the Pittsburgh Penguins? Because back in the summer of 2012 former general manager Ray Shero made quite the effort to sign Parise away from the New Jersey Devils in free agency. There was also speculation that they tried to get Suter away from the Nashville Predators as well.
Had they signed those two it would have sent the Penguins on a very different path from the one they followed over the past nine seasons.
The summer of 2012 was an odd time for the Penguins.
Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang were just entering the prime of their careers. They had a team that was a couple of years removed from winning the Stanley Cup and had a team that was still very much a contender. But they were coming off a series of increasingly frustrating playoff exits.
In 2010 they lost in the Second Round to Jaroslav Halak and the Montreal Canadiens. In 2011 they lost a 3-1 series lead to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the First Round (without Crosby and Malkin). And they were coming off of a 2012 postseason where an absolutely loaded team, that finally again had a fully healthy Crosby, Malkin, and Jordan Staal, was embarrassed in the First Round by their cross-state rivals the Philadelphia Flyers.
There was always going to be some sort of a change that offseason, especially as they had to figure out what to do with Staal whose contract was coming due.
The Penguins ended up trading Staal on draft night (in Pittsburgh!) to the Carolina Hurricanes for Brandon Sutter, Brian Dumoullin, and the No. 8 overall pick in the draft (used to select Derrick Pouliot).
They followed that up by trading defenseman Zbynek Michalek back to the Arizona Coyotes two years after signing him in free agency.
The trades of Staal, Michalek, and the free agency departure of Steve Sullivan opened up nearly $10 million in salary cap space for the Penguins to work with and were going to make them factors in the free agent market, and it was presumed that they would be going all in on Parise and Suter.
There was no doubt some sort of effort made, but it ultimately did not work as Parise and Suter signed their contracts in Minnesota.
But what if it did work? What would have followed for the Penguins in the years after that in that alternate universe?
A few thoughts...
- There is no way the Penguins were ever going to trade Evgeni Malkin, so it was not going to cost them him. But it almost certainly would have cost them Kris Letang at some point, especially if Suter had joined Parise in Pittsburgh. At the time Letang was making $3.5 million per season, but was just a year away from signing his current long-term contract that pays him more than $7.25 million per season. There is no way that would have fit under the salary cap with those two in the mix (plus Sidney Crosby and Malkin).
- That would have been a problematic trade off. We know Letang’s importance to the team, the role he has played, and the impact he has made to the Penguins, especially during the 2015-16 Stanley Cup run when he was arguably the best and most valuable player on the team. Many talked about Phil Kessel not winning the Conn Smythe trophy that season, but Letang also had a strong argument for it.
- The problem with spending big money in free agency is you are paying top dollar for players that have already played their best, most productive hockey for somebody else. While Parise and Suter were very good players for Minnesota, and almost certainly would have been for Pittsburgh, that is definitely what happened here. Losing a core player like Letang to take on contracts like that, for players like that, would have been a detrimental trade off.
- It also could have forced their hand to move a player like James Neal sooner than they did. If Parise is in the mix, would there have been the same need (or room) for Neal on a $5 million salary cap hit? If he gets traded sooner it almost certainly is not for Patric Hornqvist, taking away a signifiant part of the 2015-16 and 2016-17 Stanley Cup winning teams.
- With Parise on the roster, you also probably do not get the Phil Kessel trade before the 2015-16 season. We know the impact that trade had on those teams for the next four seasons when he was more productive than Parise was in Minnesota. Especially in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
- Even if the Penguins had signed Parise and Suter there is no guarantee they would have been the identical 13-year deals they signed in Minnesota. But they still would have been significant contracts that ran for a long time and set off a chain reaction of other moves (and non-moves) that would have significantly altered the long-term outlook of the team. They would have almost certainly still be a good team. Probably even a very good team. Maybe even a contending team. But it is hard to see them being able to win those two Stanley Cups with that roster and salary cap structure and the ensuing moves that would have had to have been made. Not signing that duo ended up being a significant day for the Penguins. That is actually a pretty good description of what NHL free agency is all about. Sometimes the only winning move is to not play.