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Penguins Salary Cap: After the Rakell signing, something has to give in Pittsburgh

The dollars and cents aren’t adding up in Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh Penguins v Minnesota Wild Photo by Bruce Kluckhohn/NHLI via Getty Images

After last night’s extension for Rickard Rakell, the Penguins have added a top-six forward and traded away a little more cap space to do so. Once flush with room, it has gone away quickly with Pittsburgh having only an estimated $10.2 million left and still several spots on their roster to round out.

Here’s a rough look at the Pens’ lineup, as of the moment, as the pieces of the puzzle continue to slide into place.

Jake Guentzel - Sidney Crosby - Bryan Rust
Jason Zucker - ????????????? - Rickard Rakell
Brock McGinn - Jeff Carter - ????????????
Drew O’Connor - Teddy Blueger - ???????????
Radim Zohorna

Brian Dumoulin / Kris Letang
Mike Matheson / John Marino
Marcus Pettersson / Chad Ruhwedel
Mark Friedman

Tristan Jarry
Casey DeSmith

As can be seen above, the Pens are good to go on defense and in net, after the recent re-signings of DeSmith and Letang. Up front, they need three more forwards, including the glaringly big hole that Evgeni Malkin has filled for the last 16 seasons. The team has retained Kasperi Kapanen’s rights, and he figures to take the spot on the Carter line now with Rust and Rakell ahead of him on the depth chart.

Bringing Rakell back indicates that something has to give. Even without Rakell, the team would have sought to mix their lineup up a little by making a trade and freshening things up. Now, it’s a mandatory item needed to clear some cap room.

Jason Zucker has been oft-injured, but perhaps most importantly only has one year left on his contract, which makes him more palatable for a bottom feeder to pick up. Now that the Pens have Rakell back in the fold, they need Zucker that much less as the supply of scoring line wingers ticks up a bit higher. The path and psychology about trying to move on from Zucker makes more sense now than it did 24 hours ago.

Brock McGinn and Mike Matheson are overpaid and over-termed for their skill level and the contributions they make, which puts a natural trade possibility over them. But that term will probably prevent them from being traded — lest the Pens have to accept an equal or somehow worse contract. (Which, as no reminder is surely needed, is precisely the reason why Matheson finds himself in Pittsburgh in the first place).

Defensively is where a move makes the most sense. Marcus Pettersson is the obvious candidate, having played 19 minutes per game in 2019-20 and seeing that drop in the last two seasons to 15 and change last year. Pettersson has become little more than depth on the team, and carries too big a contract. But dealing a slumping or plateaued player with three years left on a contract worth $4 million annually is easier said than done. Not many will be lining up to take that on.

John Marino is a more desirable asset to teams around the league, but he also carries value for the Penguins as well. The problem with the Pens trading Marino would be that they wouldn’t have much viable depth behind Letang on the right side.

Brian Dumoulin only has one year left on his contract, but didn’t have a great season last year. Letang not meshing well with Matheson probably means that Pittsburgh needs to count on Dumoulin bouncing back to maintain their team, rather than move him, if they have a a choice. They might not be afforded such a choice, however.

There is also the Pierre-Olivier Joseph to consider. The now 23-year old will not be exempt from waivers any longer, which puts his Pittsburgh career at a cross-roads since the team gave depth defender Mark Friedman a two-year contract extension.

NHL teams don’t like to carry eight healthy defenders as it is, and it’s a virtual non-starter for a teams in a salary cap crunch like the Pens.

Something has to give, and the logjam on defense is a good place to start. Other than Letang (and probably the dependable and inexpensive Chad Ruhwedel), any other blueliner could be a reasonable option to move. That includes the possibility of Joseph himself to sweeten up a trade sending out a salary, since there have been reports that the current management regime isn’t necessarily that high or found ways for Joseph to play in the NHL regularly yet.

The fallout from the Rakell signing will leave other consequences. On one hand, it adds what will be a major piece to the puzzle for the team, and one they needed. On the other hand, with cap space quickly running out and several key forward spots to add, the addition of Rakell will surely have to come with a corresponding move in the days or weeks or months ahead to even out the team’s cap structure somewhere along the line. The only real question is where it will be and who it will take out.