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Thoughts on thoughts: Salary cap increase, Guentzel’s next contract

What could Jake Guentzel’s next contract look like?

Chicago Blackhawks v Pittsburgh Penguins Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Welcome back to our semi-regular feature breaking down and analyzing Elliotte Friedman’s 32 Thoughts with a focus and bent on how they apply to the Penguins. The latest one dropped last night.

Friedman opened with notes about Winnipeg’s recent massive re-signings of Connor Hellebuyck and Mark Scheifele. Scheifele’s case is pertinent to the Penguins in terms of what it could say abut their next big negotiation with Jake Guentzel.

The Jets stunned the NHL by announcing twin seven-year, $59M extensions with Scheifele and Connor Hellebuyck on Monday. I wasn’t surprised by the goalie. Things were trending hard in that direction, even if we didn’t predict the timeline. I was shocked at Scheifele, simply because it didn’t appear as if there was much momentum.

There were basically zero contract talks in the summer; things didn’t accelerate until the last 10 days. It came together really quickly. The first-line centre admitted he wondered if it would work out.

The timing of how extensions come together draws similarities to the Guentzel situation because Kyle Dubas offered earlier this week that the team and player’s focus has been getting him back to health, not on a contract extension. Negotiations can move quickly and Dubas was more than comfortable with the notion that he and Guentzel’s representative Ben Hankinson have a great relationship to work on something when the time gets to be right.

The big number that stands out is $8.5 million, Scheifele’s new cap hit amount. It’s become a popular figure for the going rate of a “first line player that’s not a superstar but still is a point-per-game type player” that matches exactly to the cap hits Filip Forsberg and Bo Horvat have also signed long-term deals to recently. Scheifele and Horvat play center, whch tends to be valued at a premium compared to most wingers.

The age factor is important too, all of Scheifele, Horvat and Forsberg are in about the same age range. Scheifele is a year and a half older than Guentzel and this extension starts when he will be 31 and ends just after he turns 38. It’s most relevant since it’s the newest close guide-mark on the books, with both Scheifele and Guentzel falling in the same range of being counted on to scoring 30+ goals and 70+ points in most full seasons.

In conclusion, a number the $8.5m annual figure is starting to come into focus as a pretty fair target to shoot for both Guentzel and the Pens for the extension.

12. In the aftermath of the Board of Governors’ meeting, it appears the very-early, very-preliminary cap number for next season is $87.7M.

This is an encouraging figure to track, the current upper limit is $83.5 million, and the NHL’s salary cap looks like it will be going up significantly next season for the first time since 2019. Also great news for the Pens who will need to use a good chunk of this increase for Guentzel’s raise. (Or I guess you can pencil in giving him most or all of Jeff Carter’s expiring contract if that angle comes across better).

The Penguins already have current cap commitments of $70.2 million on the books for 2024-24, but that includes 15 players under contract for next year, most of which are in the key spots (five top-six forwards locked up, all four top-four defenders and a starting goalie all taken care of). Dubas can and probably will wheel and deal some contracts back out by then, but the team does have a little bit of breathing room now to operate in this range.

18. Kane hinted that Edmonton would make some structural changes. I’m not a Scotty Bowman-level tactician, but it does look like more of a box-and-one in the defensive zone.

19. Another team making some schematic change is Tampa Bay. Late last season, they worked hard up-ice at eliminating rush chances against. This year, they’ve made a slight defensive zone evolution. Historically, when the puck would go near the blue line, their defenceman on the strong side would go, too. Now, it’s more of a zone coverage than man-to-man, with the Lightning defender staying closer to the net.

These technical aspects about how the game is changing and evolving is interesting. The Blues are also involved, which likely means that almost all teams will change and adapt. In last night’s game we saw some instances of P.O Joseph and Erik Karlsson playing a little more man concepts for tracking defensively, which didn’t work out on those plays. But the Penguins also only allowed Chicago nine shot attempts in the third period with their defensive scheme.

21. Most fascinating player fit for 2023-24 is undoubtedly Pittsburgh’s Erik Karlsson. Norris Trophy season, 100 points. The idea of his talent being added to Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang is as mouthwatering as a Harbour 60/Barberian’s steak.

For people who’ve played and coached with Karlsson, they point out you really have to set up your system around him when he’s on the ice. He needs his power play time in a setup that makes sense for him (which didn’t work when Brent Burns was still in San Jose) and he needs system flexibility most other players wouldn’t get. Now, you’re going to do that with someone as talented as he is. You don’t buy a Ferrari and drive it on a 60-foot circle.

The Penguins are coming off a hugely-disappointing season, so everyone will be willing to make it work. Everyone — including the other superstars — is going to have to adjust to him on the ice more than he will adjust to them.

This note is a bit annoying to further the narrative around Burns and Karlsson — neither had problems fitting together in what was individually and team-wise massively successful season in 2018-19. But the overarching point about the adjustment and adaption period for Karlsson with the Penguins is still a good one that figures to draw much attention from far and wide this year.

Also of note for that was the Pens’ top power play clicked for two goals in their final preseason game, followed immediately by taking Letang off the top power play and then it going back to square one last night in the regular season opener. How Sullivan will fit the pieces together still looks like a work in progress in that regard.

One cool area to track is overall usage. Chad Ruhwedel only took six shifts in the third period (and just one shift in the game’s last 13 minutes). The Pens were basically able to double-shift Letang (9:31 ice time in the third) and Karlsson (8:44) in crunch time.

It didn’t pay off with a win, but loading up with elite players and the top-four in general is going to be a repeated feature throughout the season for the Pens that they will hope leads to results in tight games.

22. In the eyes of his compatriots, Pittsburgh GM Kyle Dubas’s waiver claim of Jansen Harkins shows the executive’s evolution. Harkins isn’t a big scorer, but last season featured the best underlying numbers of his career. (At least what’s available in public data.) Dubas began his career thinking offence-first all the time, even with his deeper lines. While, in theory, from an entertainment point of view, offence is more exciting, there’s not enough of it to fill 32 rosters. Therefore, an argument can be made that successful teams have depth that may not score, but won’t get caved-in.

The stars will get the attention but a big part of the Pens’ season is how lower line players like Lars Eller, Drew O’Connor and now Jansen Harkins will perform and hold up while the team awaits the opportunity to get Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin back on the ice.

Harkins’ inclusion on the roster is a clear sign of this. He’s currently on the third line as more of a speedy, energy checking type of player, where the alternatives would have been to go with an offensive-minded Alex Nylander or the size of Radim Zohorna, either of whom easily could have been placed there if the Pens’ decision makers wanted to go in a different direction. That speaks to what kind of lower lines that Dubas has been trying to build so far in Pittsburgh and is worth noting and watching as well for how it will evolve during the year.