Ty Smith spent Sunday morning in Pittsburgh, practicing with the Penguins and skating with Jan Rutta in a spot that would play in the NHL lineup. That was business as usual, Smith has been attached to Rutta for the entire pre-season and performed well, especially in Friday night’s final exhibition game where Smith scored a goal and added a nice assist.
By Sunday afternoon, Smith was officially assigned to the AHL, along with Mark Friedman. The two moves brought the Penguins down to 22 players on their roster and a tight but compliant $83,158 under the NHL’s salary cap.
The last part is key, since the Pens’ season opening roster is due to the league this afternoon. The team will not have Smith as a part of the NHL roster in order to be cap compliant.
But will Smith remain off the roster by the Pens’ first game on Thursday? It could be a different story by that point.
As written all over the place, the move of Smith to the AHL is less about how the Penguins want their roster to look like this season, and more about the salary cap and shielding Pierre-Olivier Joseph from waivers. With The Athletic reporting that even yesterday that the Pens were in talks to culminate a trade to ship Joseph out of the organization. That hasn’t happened yet, perhaps with other teams waiting to see what happens with the salary cap squeeze in Pittsburgh.
Something will have to give for the Pens, because they can’t squeeze in eight defensemen and stay under the cap, and yet they also have been preparing on the ice for Smith to be a part of their NHL lineup all pre-season. Smith is (temporarily at least) off the roster, but with the games starting on Thursday, they will need to clear cap space for him one way or another with Joseph in order to get the lineup that they have been planning on playing in place.
Perhaps the Pens will use the lessons learned today when news of yesterday’s waiver entries passes. Across the league, several young defenders were waived with high profiles and are potentially intriguing pickups in Josh Mahura (ANA), Victor Mete (TOR), Lucas Carlsson (FLA) and Jacob Moverare (LAK). There are also some older, more expensive veterans like Will Reilly (BOS), Will Butcher (DAL) and Philippe Myers (TB) who could catch a team’s eye if they are looking for picking up a more experienced defender.
If all of these players clear — especially one in Mahura who has a similar but better profile to Joseph — perhaps that shows Pittsburgh that the waters have settled down enough where it would be safe to waive Joseph this week.
Should the waiver route not be an option, perhaps a suitor will be inclined to make a trade with the Pens to get Joseph upon seeing that Pittsburgh can become cap compliant without having to waive Joseph.
Regardless of the question of “how” the jam finally unbinds itself, the situation is nothing new. In the past, we have seen NHL caliber young players exiled off of Pittsburgh’s NHL roster for the start of the league’s season off-ice salary cap reasons — who could forget Eric Tangradi playing pre-season on Evgeni Malkin’s line in fall 2010 and then shockingly being demoted to ECHL Wheeling for a day, before being back for the NHL season opener?
The Ty Smith situation reeks of such a measure for the Pens to buy time to figure out how to best set their lineup while staying under the NHL’s salary cap, and then have the ability to bring the young player back and set their actual playing lineup by the time their games begin. It’s a tried and true way to navigate the salary cap, which makes for some awkward times and moments until the dust finally settles. But with only a few days left until the Pens’ games actually begin, the answers should be finally revealing themselves soon enough.