Updated Penguins Salary Cap Situation for Malkin, Letang & UFA Needs

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Updated Penguins Salary Cap Situation for Malkin, Letang & UFA Needs

Winger Bryan Rust has a few more years left after signing a six-year deal on Saturday night. The Pittsburgh Penguins surprised some people with their speed and focused negotiation. They also got a discount.

Despite the bargain, the Penguins will spend about $1.6 million more on Rust starting next season. Fortunately, the NHL salary cap for fans and all teams will increase by $1 million to $82.5 million next season. That’s not insignificant given the bleeding we’ve seen from the flat cap over the last two offseasons.

Now (trigger alert) the Penguins still have Jack Johnson on their books through 2026, and his cap hit will jump to just over $1.9 million for 2022-23.

So the Penguins are playing at just under $80.5 million for next season and have just under $24 million to play with. As a financial placeholder, we assume that a top pair RHD will cost at least $7.5 million.

Forwards: Seven Signed, $33.4 million spent

UFAs: Evgeni Malkin, Rickard Rakell, Evan Rodrigues, Brian Boyle.

RFAs: Kasperi Kapanen, Danton Heinen.

The Pittsburgh Penguins spent just over $49 million on forwards this season. They currently have seven signed at a cost of $33.4 million. The penguins have two RFAs, which could prove problematic because they have arbitration rights. Kasperi Kapanen and Danton Heinen are eligible for a Qualifying Offer to retain their rights.

Miraculously, Kapanen’s 2021-22 salary ($800,000) was well below his AAV ($2.75 million). So his QO will only be $840,000. However, Heinen is owed a $1.1 million QO.

Kapanen’s salary makes it tempting to give him a second chance, but QO and commitment are two different things. No matter how terrible Kapanen finds his performance, a referee is likely to award something closer to his AAV than his 840,000 QO.

The Penguins need five more forwards under contract, assuming Drew O’Connor and Radim Zohorna can serve as fourth-liners or as 13th forwards.

Consistent with last year’s cap formula, the Penguins have about $15 million left to spend on forwards, including a second-line center, a second-line winger, two center six wingers and maybe a fourth liner.

Soft Predictions (Don’t hold me to them for longer than this week): The Penguins will re-sign Evan Rodrigues for about $2 million. The “Swiss Army Knife” described by Mike Sullivan was lost after Evgeni Malkin returned but turned up in the playoffs. He scored 19 goals and came on as a second-line center in Game 6 in Sidney Crosby’s absence. Neither Heinen nor Kapanen will return. PHN liked Heinen’s playoff series against New York. He’s had a far better year than Kapanen, for whom it’s probably time to cut bait; one tip wasted in the lottery. Perhaps Kapanen’s rights have some value in the NHL trade market.

Heinen could again be a cheap mid-six in the $2 million range. He scored 33 points in 76 games, including 18 goals. At $2 million or less, Heinen is a good signing. Above that number it’s not hard enough to play against him.

However, the penguins need penalty killers. Fewer goals scored can offset fewer goals allowed. The difference with and without Zach Aston-Reese was stark.

The PK lost two full points to 84.4% in the final weeks of the season. Against the Rangers, the PK was miserable.

The Penguins have $3 million to replace Kapanen and Heinen with at least one third-line winger who can score 12-15 goals and take penalties.

The big nope is the second line. The Penguins will have about $10-$11 million to spend on a second-line center and Rakell or equivalent winger. Before you start spending that money, a second-line center like Vincent Trocheck is likely to make about $6 million in this market, maybe a little more.

Rakell earned approximately $3.89 million AAV. Given his spectacular performance with the Penguins, he’s in line for a raise. A team with a good center but needing a top six winger must be viewed with great curiosity by Rakell. Will it be done with $4.5 million? Perhaps. Maybe not. He could command $5 million or a little more if a team really liked what they saw.

The Penguins will have considerable money to spend on forwards, especially if they can sever themselves from less than desirable contracts on defense, but it won’t be enough for everyone you or they want.

What did Evgeni Malkin mean when he said: “Good players sign good contracts… I said I’m a rich guy but I don’t deserve a $1 million contract…”

Is that 6-7 million dollars? How about $8-9 million?

You can see the math.

Colleague Dave Molinari examined possible trade lures used by the penguins, which would also change the calculus. But don’t forget, every trade needs a partner. Not many teams are lining up to take on Jason Zucker, whose health and recent drop in production pose major problems with a $5.5 million cap hit.

Defense: Six signed, $18.975 million spent.

The Pittsburgh Penguins have six fullbacks under contract and PO Joseph is waiting on the wings. They have enough body but lack top pair defenders. Kris Letang looks like a goner.

The Penguins spent just over $27 million on the blue line this season (including Nathan Beaulieu), so they have money to spend. The question is – how?

Can they find a top pair defender for the $7-8 million range? There are not many.

And no, raising John Marino or Marcus Pettersson is probably a bad idea. Mike Matheson was playing good minutes in top pair, but he needed a reliable partner on the right who was also capable of playing against the Metro Division’s top lines.

Goalie: One signed, $3.5 million spent

Tristan Jarry is under contract for another year. The Penguins will be able to select a handful of backup goalies, likely in the same $1 million to $2 million range. Perhaps Louis Domingue will return as a third goalkeeper to continue working with Andy Chiodo. Domingue won three playoff games, but his technique became increasingly patchy.

Casey DeSmith missed the last two playoff heats through injury. It’s fair to say that the Penguins could possibly win the 2021 fight with the New York Islanders if it were available and likely win the 2022 first-round fight with the Rangers. The Penguins outplayed both New York teams.

Will goalie-conscious Ron Hextall look elsewhere for reinforcements? Marc-Andre Fleury rumors have surfaced and will surface, but the numbers are rolling. If Fleury doesn’t want a $2 million contract, where are the Penguins getting the money from without sacrificing otherwise significant needs?

It’s not realistic.

Conclusions:

Hextall needs about $27 million to complete the blue line, excluding salary deducted from trades. That means the Penguins will have $49 million for the Forward crew. So the Pittsburgh Penguins will have about $11 million to complete their second line after spending about $4 million solidifying the depth of the middle six.

This all means between $7 million and $8 million to replace or sign Kris Letang. It means about $15 million for five forwards and a few nickels more than $1 million for a backup goalie.

Each dollar from one column equals a dollar from the other.

Hextall hasn’t missed a player yet. Mark Friedman, Jeff Carter, Danton Heinen, Brian Boyle, Evan Rodrigues and Rikard Rakell have all exceeded their contracts and acquisition costs. In some cases, these players far exceeded expectations. Louis Domingue also exceeded his expectations.

This off-season, Hextall could be pushed into a gamble or two if the market gets mixed up, as was the case with the last free-agent frenzy when prices surprised some GMs, including Hextall.

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