Now that the NHL season has concluded, it doesn’t take long for the off-season to kick into gear. The NHL draft begins next week on Thursday July 7th. A few days after that the free agent market opens on July 13th.
Prior to those events is a way to clear salary cap space when the NHL’s first buyout window runs from July 1 to 5 p.m. on July 12. Players have to clear unconditional waivers before they can be bought out, so they may begin to show up on waivers as early as June 30th. If a player has a full no move clause in their contract, they can elect to skip the waiver process and proceed directly to the buyout.
Buyouts don’t happen that frequently across the league, there have only been an average of about 10 over the last four years (10, 10, 11 and 8 going back to 2018).
The Penguins have very rarely used buyouts — way back in 2006 they bought out two players in Sebastien Caron and Shane Endicott. Pittsburgh wouldn’t use another until all the way in 2020, when they cut the cord with Jack Johnson. Err, make that Stanley Cup champion Jack Johnson for an official title. (What a world!)
This year, it doesn’t seem like that the Pens will use their second buyout in three years and add more dead cap money to the four years remaining on Johnson’s cap penalty that remains on the books until the 2025-26 season is complete. For one thing, it’s not great business to pile up more and more unusable cap space. Buyouts might free up some space initially, but linger on for years to come.
A secondary reason is that the Pens don’t have very good candidates to buyout. Sure, they have players on inefficient contracts that aren’t used or don’t perform to the level of their contracts, but most of those still have three or four years remaining (like Mike Matheson, Marcus Pettersson and Brock McGinn) and don’t make for good buyout candidates.
The only place to pause and consider might be Jason Zucker, who has just one year left on a $5.5 million cap hit, but even then that likely will not be possible.
Players must pass a physical prior to a buyout, and Zucker was unsure last month if he would need another surgery to repair the damage in his core/groin area that gave him so much trouble throughout the season. Zucker could not sit on the regular bench during the Pens’ playoff run, needing to a stool to lean on, so expecting his body to pass a physical a few weeks later would be a tall task.
Even though that decision is already outside of the hands of the team, here are the ramifications of what Zucker’s potential buyout this summer would look like, via Capfriendly:
The team could clear up $3.5 million in space with just the stroke of a pen (you know, assuming somehow the health situation would work) for 2022-23 by buying out Zucker. That sounds nice, but then they would also have (another) hole in their top-six forward group that would only have three members under contract for next season, as of now in Sidney Crosby, Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust.
$3.5 million is under the going rate to find another top-six forward, so the buyout of Zucker really doesn’t actually save much money. And the penalty comes in 2023-24, where Pittsburgh would have to take a $1.7 million cap hit in the following season that would only serve as a further setback.
Oddly enough, the best case for a buyout for Pittsburgh is a player who isn’t even in the organization right now. There’s an interesting and unique circumstance around the status of Nashville’s Philippe Myers.
As explained in Daily Faceoff:
Myers represents a unique and quirky opportunity for a cap-strapped team that can trade for him and actually create salary cap space with a buyout. Because Myers is 25 and his deal is backloaded, his buyout would result in a $616,666 credit on next season’s cap, followed by a $633,334 charge the following season. This has happened before (see: Jared Cowen in 2016) and the Toronto Maple Leafs pounced on the deal
Acquiring Myers would be a total “kick the can down the road” move to save $616k in 2022-23 and then take a similar $633k penalty in 2023-24. It would be a short-term move to basically borrow against the 2023-24 cap for 2022-23. For the Penguins, this doesn’t not make sense to gain a little immediate edge, but this is also a team that is trying to sign players like Kris Letang and Evgeni Malkin to multi-year deals. The 2023-24 cap is important too, kicking the can down the road and dealing with the cost later isn’t a great way to manage the salary cap.
This move also deals with a relatively small amount by NHL standards and comes in under a minimum player salary, the benefit provided wouldn’t even be that grand or move the needle too much.
For all those reasons, it will likely be a quiet buyout period for the Penguins, which is just fine since they need the time to focus on the negotiations with Letang and Malkin anyways.