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How the Penguins can become cap compliant, and a potential roster

The Pens have some minor paper pushing to do in order to get set for next season

Pittsburgh Penguins v New York Rangers - Game Seven Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

As mentioned earlier, the Penguins now sit slightly above the salary cap, though the outlook at CapFriendly comes with a caveat. That website shows Pittsburgh $480k over the upper limit, but it also has a full 23-player listing on the roster, including eight defensemen. Most NHL teams like to carry seven healthy defenders, so the question posed in the title could be boiled down to as simple of an answer as: “Mark Friedman or Chad Ruhwedel gets pushed off Pittsburgh’s NHL roster in the numbers game and possibly Ty Smith and P.O. Joseph switch places from CapFriendly’s look and that’s that”.

That isn’t the only avenue that could be traveled. As far back as last week, Pens’ general manager Ron Hextall was, in his own words, “pretty comfortable” about the cap situation, even when it meant paying a premium for Kasperi Kapanen through the restricted free agent route.

That quote did come before last weekend’s hectic moves to send John Marino to New Jersey and acquire Jeff Petry from Montreal. But, then again, the net of those two trades were a positive to the Pens’ salary cap space, and likely already baked into Hextall’s thinking in some rough manner for his future plans and vision of the salary cap situation.

Here are some ways the Pens can get cap compliant.

#1: Buyout

Frank Seravalli sounded like he was thinking out loud or simply laying out the possibility, based on the fact that the Pens will have a second buyout window open up for them, as a wrinkle with the CBA. Due to Kapanen filing for arbitration and the team signing him, they get an additional buyout window to trim salary, if they want it.

With Pittsburgh’s situation, truthfully it’s not something to give much consideration towards. As written here on Pensburgh last month, there are no good candidates for a buyout this year.

It didn’t make sense in the first window to buyout Jason Zucker, and it still doesn’t make sense in the second window. There won’t be a reasonable replacement to be found with the $3.4 million in savings that would open up this year in the first place. (Not to mention, the point of a buyout would be to save significant space, so the task would be finding a top-six LW for well under $3.4 million to clear room). And the charge would be an additional $1.7 million cap penalty in 2023-24. That math just doesn’t add up.

Ditto Pettersson, who would carry a $1.3 million penalty for six seasons. Pettersson might be a little over-paid now, but he would be over-paid for a long time to buy him out now, gain a hole on the left side of the defensive chart, and have nothing to show for it.

#2: Fix the defensive logjam

While a buyout doesn’t make sense, something still has to give to clear salary cap space in Pittsburgh. It doesn’t take long to see where there is the area to address.

The Pens have nine players who probably belong or fit on an NHL roster for next season. Unfortunately, eight would be the absolute maximum to carry, and they would be better off finding a way to trim it to seven players in order to bank room.

At this point, in retrospect, the signing of Jan Rutta is what has created this bottleneck. It’s almost as if Hextall thought at the start of free agency he would trade Marino and not be able to bring back a suitable replacement on the right side, and thus needed Rutta. Just a few days later, the Pens brought in Petry and now the right side defense is over-full in Pittsburgh.

An NHL team just can’t carry five RHD, which is bad news for Mark Friedman, and possibly Chad Ruhwedel too. Friedman entered the Pens’ organization on waivers and could be back on the waiver wire in training camp. Just doing that puts Pittsburgh under the cap limit.

Ruhwedel was very serviceable last year as a lower line defender. He has a very reasonable contract with $800k for two years. Could some smart team out there toss Pittsburgh a late draft pick and add a depth guy like Ruhwedel? Wouldn’t seem out of the realm of possibilities, but then again not many teams are probably worked up in a frenzy to add a decent but low-key, low-end defender.

On the left, Ty Smith had a poor season last year and is eligible to be assigned to the AHL without using waivers. How the team will choose him or P.O. Joseph to make the NHL opening night lineup will be an interesting development to track in training camp which young player steps up.

If it’s not Joseph and he is out-played by Smith, then what is his future in the organization? Joseph would require waivers to be sent to the AHL, and if he’s not ready for the NHL now, will he ever make it (at least in the Pens’ organization)? It’s a real question to pose at this point. A spot is there for the taking for Joseph, but now at 23-years old and with plenty of AHL experience, he needs to go out and grab that proverbial brass ring.

The Pittsburgh defense is interesting since there are so many moving parts. Kris Letang and Petry will be on the roster. It would be unprecedented to sign Rutta only to trade him before he played a game, so he’s got to be safe too. Some might speculate or float the possibility of Brian Dumoulin being moved, but that makes limited sense at this point.

But other than those four stable veterans, the other five all could have cases to stay in Pittsburgh next year, or move on. Perhaps there is a trade to make for Pettersson. Smith’s best spot could be playing in the AHL for the first time. Joseph may or may not be full-time NHL quality and belong on the roster. Ruhwedel and Friedman both could be victims of numbers game.

Taking a stab at the opening night roster:

Forwards (13)
Jake Guentzel - Sidney Crosby - Bryan Rust
Jason Zucker - Evgeni Malkin - Rickard Rakell
Brock McGinn - Jeff Carter - Kasperi Kapanen
Ryan Poehling - Teddy Blueger - Josh Archibald
Extra: Drew O’Connor

Defense (7)
Brian Dumoulin / Kris Letang
Marcus Pettersson / Jeff Petry
Ty Smith / Jan Rutta
Extra: Chad Ruhwedel

Goalies (2)
Tristan Jarry
Casey DeSmith

—The simplest solution is the easiest to project. A trade could easily alter the course, but there isn’t much a need to get too creative and deal Blueger and shift Poehling over to his natural spot of center. (Plus that would weaken an already unimpressive fourth line).

This lineup would have a mere $294k in cap space, and probably require the use of long term injury reserve if any player suffers an injury longer than a day-to-day ailment, which isn’t a great spot to be in. But that is the bed the Pens have made with the deals to players like Kapanen and Rutta.

The battle for presumably one roster spot between Smith and Joseph could go either way. The area of less resistance would be to safely demote Smith to the AHL, but Smith might prove to be more of an NHL caliber player than Joseph. If the reverse scenario plays out with Joseph making the NHL club and Smith demoted, the Pens bump up slightly to having $333k in cap space, making the decision more about on-ice fit than a financial one. The team could defer towards protecting Joseph from waivers, but at 23 and draft+5 now, if he’s not NHL caliber at this point, there also isn’t that much to protect as it gets to “fish or cut bait” time with him, the latter part of the scenario is an option on the table as well.

Other marginal decisions could play out as well. Could a Filip Hallander or Radim Zohorna take the last spot from O’Connor? Certainly would be a possibility, though it wouldn’t alter cap compliance no matter the direction of the last forward.

Regardless of how the situation plays out, barring injury to someone else, it’s tough to draw up a cap compliant roster that includes Mark Friedman at this point due to the sheer amount of blueliners that the club has right now.

By the end of training camp something will have to give in Pittsburgh to get under the cap, and the obvious answer if another trade doesn’t happen would be to cut Friedman and then skim just under the upper limit as the 2022-23 season begins.