In the NHL, salary cap space for teams is often the key when it comes to personnel decisions. The league is looking to endure one more year of a mostly flat cap, as it has been since 2019 and prior to the pandemic. A flat cap means that some contending teams are out of salary cap space, and have to make some tough decisions moving forward.
For once, the Pittsburgh Penguins are not that team in a jam. The Pens have some roster holes to address — but they also have almost $21 million in cap room to do it with for next season. And it’s tough not to think it could be $25 million of operating space with a Mikael Granlund buyout, but we digress.
Anyways, with this new-found space comes opportunity. The Pens’ next general manager absolutely needs to leverage their favorable financial positions to take advantage of teams in a crunch. As a result of the financial aspects, the trade market tips heavily in the balance of teams that can absorb contracts. Frank Seravalli at Daily Faceoff laid out some candidates for off-season trades, most of them due to their team’s situations. Here’s some that stood out:
3. Samuel Girard
Left Defense, Colorado Avalanche
Stats: 76 GP, 6 G, 31 A, 37 Pts
Contract: 4 more seasons, $5 million AAV
Scoop: By no means will the Avs be eager to move Girard, but the math doesn’t work to keep everyone. Colorado is projected to have somewhere around $13 million in salary cap space this summer, but will need to sign upwards of nine players with that cash. Girard would appear to be the odd-man out on the back end. Devon Toews makes a bigger overall impact; Bowen Byram is three years younger and has higher upside. Girard is a clear fourth among Avs defensemen in minutes played. All of that might mean for another team that he could do more with more opportunity. His contract is also a reminder you can never go wrong buying all of the prime years of a player’s career on a long-term deal.
The next Penguins GM has to be all over this one. Along with monitoring the Connor Hellebuyck situation in Winnipeg, trying to poach Girard from Colorado would be one of the biggest somewhat plausible additions to improve the Pens in one fell swoop.
Girard is young but experienced and almost exactly what Pittsburgh needs as a left-side upgrade on defense. He can skate extremely well, take shifts killing penalties, is great at moving the puck and going back to retrieve it. Girard’s EV Offense and Defense WAR are still recovering in the curse of playing with Jack Johnson, but Girard is a nimble skating puck moving defender who can pass exceptionally well and excellent in transition through the neutral zone. His skills and abilities are 100% of a need in Pittsburgh on the left side of the ice.
Best of all, Pittsburgh is in a perfect position to offer Colorado exactly what they could badly use in Girard’s place: a cheap replacement that could be either P.O. Joseph ($825k contract for next year) or Ty Smith (RFA but inexpensively positioned) that the Avs can use in their lineup behind Toews and Bowen on the left side. It saves Colorado $4+ million that they will need for other spots, it gives the Pens a quality 24-year old player that improves their lineup and defensive core instantly. It’s a win/win/win situation that must be strongly explored.
9. Ross Colton
Left Wing, Tampa Bay Lightning
Stats: 81 GP, 16 G, 16 A, 32 Pts
Contract: Pending RFA, $1.125 million AAV
Scoop: Colton is due a massive raise and it doesn’t appear that the Lightning have room to pay him. The late-blooming, fourth-round pick who made a dent during Tampa’s 2021 Stanley Cup run also has to cash in. His career earnings total $2.9 million. This is his prime earning time, so a hometown discount likely isn’t in order. Colton has arbitration rights and has established himself as an 18-to-20-goal scorer who can be a consistent contributor on a contending team’s third line. That will make him in-demand for teams who think he can elevate in their lineup. Even if Alex Killorn walks in free agency, Tampa will have less than $10 million to spend to fill out eight roster spots, and will also have to pay Tanner Jeannot.
Ideally, an NHL team would want to draft and develop players like Ross Colton. The next best thing is acquiring them at still a relatively young age when the team that does bring them along can’t afford to keep them. For a team like Pittsburgh who have had incredible struggles at producing goals and finishing plays, Colton becomes more intriguing.
Colton isn’t huge at 6’0, 195 but is an effective physical player that led Tampa’s forwards in hits in the 2022-23 regular season. He’s played a little center but mostly on the wing. He doesn’t kill penalties, but he does produce a lot of goals at 5v5 from down the lineup. Colton is a player the Pittsburgh bottom-six has lacked since guys like Evan Rodrigues and Jared McCann moved on: an effective, young, versatile forward with upside and the ability to actually put the puck in the net.
(Also, the new GM would have already reversed a good bit of Ron Hextall’s damage by trading, say Smith to COL and a third rounder to TB and we can all half-ass pretend by way of the transitive property that the Pens fetched Girard+Colton in lieu of giving up on John Marino..)
10. Taylor Hall
Left Wing, Boston Bruins
Stats: 61 GP, 16 G, 20 A, 36 Pts
Contract: 2 more seasons, $6 million AAV
Scoop: Hall has been magnificent for the Bruins in the first-round series against the Panthers, so it’s easy to understand why this feels like a reach. However, CapFriendly would indicate Hall’s cap hit is a luxury the Bruins cannot afford. The complicating factor for Boston is a $4.5 million salary cap overage that will be placed on next year’s books by virtue of the Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci earned performance bonuses. So whatever next year’s cap ends up being, take $4.5 million off the top. Then factor in that they’ll need to sign nearly half of their roster – and might try to keep a trade acquisition like Tyler Bertuzzi – and the dollars get stretched thin in a hurry. Hall has been a playoff beast, but his production at that cap hit is less than ideal. He has a 10-team “no-trade” list.
The best thing about Taylor Hall is that it’s easy to see how he could be had like a Max Pacioretty/Marc-Andre Fleury transaction where the only cost for a capable player is taking on his contract.
If Jason Zucker wants too much money or for too long, what about essentially adding Taylor Hall on a $6.0m for two year contract? Could be preferable for the Pens, depending on how that plays out.
Hall isn’t young and not coming off a great statistical season, but his deeper metrics suggest that he is a playmaking top-six winger that has something positive to offer. And, again, the price to get him (assuming he is available and Boston doesn’t cut in a different manner) should be almost literally only the cost of the contract - which isn’t that bad of a deal for a team like the Pens in the first place.
15. Alec Martinez
Left Defense, Vegas Golden Knights
Stats: 77 GP, 3 G, 11 A, 14 Pts
Contract: 1 more season, $5.25 million AAV
Scoop: From jump street, there was always the likelihood that the third year of Martinez’s extension was going to be painful for the Golden Knights. That Martinez was upright and playing this season was a big step in the right direction. There’s no doubt Martinez has veteran savvy and hockey intelligence in spades, but his game has slowed in a significant way that will force Vegas to ask some tough questions this summer. His “no-trade” list drops down to eight teams this summer.
Given age and playing style, Girard would be incredibly more desirable than Martinez. With Kris Letang and presumably Jeff Petry on the roster, adding another 35+ defender is probably not the strongest of ideas for the Pens to consider. However, Martinez does have the pedigree of a very impressive career behind him and sometimes experience can be seen as a positive and not a negative.
The Pens don’t have enough available cap space to go after unlimited targets, Martinez should be more towards the bottom of the list and only pursued if other options fall through. But given his history, he’s a name worth keeping in mind.
17. Mikael Granlund
Center/Wing, Pittsburgh Penguins
Stats: 79 GP, 10 G, 31 A, 41 Pts
Contract: 2 more seasons, $5 million AAV
Scoop: The Granlund trade was one of the moves that helped put the nail in the coffin of GM Ron Hextall’s tenure in Pittsburgh. One word to describe his stay in the Steel City: Disastrous. Granlund scored a grand total of one goal in 21 games as the Pens missed the playoffs. To be fair, that wasn’t all on him, but he certainly didn’t hold up to his end of the bargain. Now, with two more years left on his deal, his contract will be one for the next GM to clean up – and it might involve the Penguins having to pay to move on from him.
Granlund’s one of the most interesting players in Pittsburgh to track this summer. What will the new GM that inherits him make of this situation? Could Granlund improve and fit better with a second chance with the Pens? (Would be tough to be worse...) How much has his value tanked because of the last 20 games? Is he worth buying out? How much to pay if as suggested above it would take an asset to do so?
There are so many questions and for now no clear answers. Everything could and should be on the table, but at the end of the day this is probably money better spent somewhere else. A buyout in this situation is possibly not as costly or useful as a trade, but it depends on the conditions and what the market may or may not be.