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Can Dubas’ Leafs experience help him solve the Penguins cap crunch?

The team is set to spend over $14 million on the trio of Jeff Petry, Mikael Granlund and Jeff Carter next season— but this isn’t the first time Dubas has moved a too-large contract.

NHL: APR 06 Wild at Penguins Photo by Jeanine Leech/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Kyle Dubas’ biggest opponent in building the 2022-23 Penguins isn’t other NHL teams. It’s Ron Hextall.

Will Dubas’ experience in Toronto, where he moved 39-year-old Patrick Marleau’s $6.25 cap hit without retaining salary in 2019, help him guide Pittsburgh out of some of Hextall’s worst contracts?

After making a slew of free agency acquisitions ranging from big defenseman Ryan Graves to veteran third-line center in Lars Eller, Dubas and his team are still left facing a $14 million block comprised of Jeff Petry ($6.25 million), Mikael Granlund ($5 million) and Jeff Carter ($3.125 million.) Together, they make up almost 16% of the 2023-24 salary cap.

Friday’s additions of Andreas Johnsson and Vinnie Hinostroza leave the Penguins $2.2 million over the cap, per CapFriendly, with Drew O’Connor still pending arbitration.

Although Pittsburgh would likely try to shed some salary in a potential move for Erik Karlsson, the defenseman would be an $8 million cap hit at best even if the San Jose Sharks retain salary.

The best way to get all of this under the cap would be to shed some undesirable contracts. That will be a first major test for Dubas, who rarely faced this situation in Toronto.

When Dubas replaced Lou Lamoriello as general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs in May 2018, the biggest contract on the Maple Leafs’ books was Marleau’s.

The team’s next biggest active contracts belonged to Frederick Andersen and Morgan Rielly at just under $4 million apiece, meaning all of the team’s other contracts were either worth the cost or relatively easy to move.

In summer 2019, however, Dubas successfully moved the Marleau contract to the Hurricanes by adding a conditional 2020 first-round pick and a seventh-round selection to sweeten the deal.

The Leafs retained no salary, but that conditional pick stung. It turned out to be the No. 13 selection and became Seth Jarvis.

Dubas has talked about how his experience with the lingering cap hit from the Penguins’ Phil Kessel trade, which cost the Leafs’ $1.2 million for the entirety of Dubas’ tenure, as a reason to avoid buyouts and dead cap hits. He was more willing to give up risky assets like a potentially-high first-round pick than he was to retain any of Marleau’s cap hit when making that deal.

Can he pull off a similar move for any of the Penguins’ most obvious buyout candidates?

At the time of his trade to Carolina, Marleau had one season remaining on his contract, and hadn’t missed a game in more than 10 seasons. In contrast, Petry missed significant stretches of last season due to injury, and Granlund is signed on for two more seasons at $5 million AAV.

Carter, however, is in a similar situation to Marleau. He played most of last season, scored 13 goals and is signed for just one more campaign. His $3.125 million is an easier pill to swallow. It’s feasible to imagine him getting moved in a package with future assets.

Even if Dubas lost out on a top-15 pick last time he tried that move, is it a strategy he’s considering employing in Pittsburgh?

The risk of losing a high draft pick might be worth it. As in a potential Erik Karlsson trade, it seems like Penguins’ best bet to go all-in, even if that means decimating future draft stock, to give the team a shot at returning to the playoffs.