You’re not going to hear an NHL executive sell out his own players after a playoff letdown. Especially not veterans. Especially not when doing so will probably hamper trade values and certainly fracture personal relationships.
But if you wanted the Penguins and GM Jim Rutherford to acknowledge that their too-old, too-slow (but mostly too-injured) roster couldn’t hang with the younger, speedier New York Rangers in the first round of this year’s playoffs, this is as close as we’re ever going to get. From the official site of the Pens:
I don’t want to suggest I’m giving up on some of these older players because they can still contribute. But everything will be in the mix when we look at trying to make the team better.
The Penguins were supposed to be the dynasty-in-waiting of the salary cap era. Since that last title in 2009, however, they’ve become one of hockey’s oldest rosters, one that’s consistently too injured to remain competitive and too capped out to field proper, four-line depth.
Turning to the youth is a good option, if not one fraught with a little more risk than either of the last two management teams have been willing to accept. Given the team’s cap situation, it’s also going to be a necessity.
This year’s five-defensemen debacle is the clearest possible message that this team needs to become more responsible under the salary cap, and their chip-and-chase-and-hang-on-for-dear-life offensive approach against New York, due as much to injury as it was, was still the clearest possible sign that this team doesn’t have the legs to keep up with the class of the East (nevermind what the Islanders did to them in the regular season).
The Penguins are up against it. In a salary cap league, building a competitor means finding value where others don’t. The Blackhawks do so through the draft. The Lightning are doing it by breaking convention.
Pittsburgh’s got the kind of core to take any sort of team to the postseason. But they can no longer operate under the Win Now doctrine that has seen them sacrifice youth and cap space in pursuit of another title. Especially since youth and cap space are more instrumental to winning a championship in today’s NHL than stacking the deck with overpaid veterans.
Pittsburgh can get cheaper. Even with its mostly underwhelming farm system, a youth movement could bring as much promise as it would risk.
Change can come by way of trade, if done right. A bit less likely, free agency is also another place to find value if you’re smart about it. And, as maligned as the prospect pool has become thanks to a near-decade of opting not to draft forwards or Europeans with the few picks they’ve had, the Penguins have a few internal options that might bolster their NHL lineup (in terms of cap savings, if not talent, anyway).
The team says it wants to get younger. Their payroll says it must become cheaper. It can all be done, but it will take an approach to roster building that this franchise is just not familiar with.
Here’s what we know.
What is Committed
- Eight NHL forwards are signed for next year. There are five UFA forwards and one RFA forwards on the end-of-season roster.
- Four NHL defensemen are signed for next year. There are three UFA defensemen and two RFA defensemen on the end-of-season roster.
- Marc-Andre Fleury is signed through 2019. Backup Thomas Greiss is a UFA.
In total, the Penguins already have $57.7 million committed to 13 players next season. The latest cap projection for the 2015-16 season, by way of Chris Johnston and Gary Bettman, has the cap ceiling at some $71.5 million. Ahead of any possible trades, buyouts or signings, the Penguins are looking at some $14 million in cap space with 10 players needed to complete a 23-man roster.
Much of the talk surrounding the Penguins is the huge financial commitment to their core players — Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and Marc-Andre Fleury. They are owed $31.2 million in cap obligations through the 2019 season, when the first of them, Fleury, becomes a UFA. Capped out at the projected $71.5 million, they would account for 43 percent of the payroll. CBS Sports’ Adam Gretz notes, correctly, that this isn’t an issue — it’s part and parcel to a championship roster. Problems lie in building a deep, value-rich roster around them, something the Penguins haven’t done well since 2012.
Building up the fringes of the team with value contracts starts with purging some of the too-rich deals that still plague the roster, most signed before Rutherford took over last summer.
Here’s a look at who isn’t guaranteed to return next year.
Who is Out the Door?
According to HockeyBuzz, the end-of-season roster has nine players set to hit unrestricted free agency and three others set to become restricted free agents. They include:
- Maxim Lapierre
- Steve Downie
- Blake Comeau
- Craig Adams
- Daniel Winnik
- Paul Martin
- Christian Ehrhoff
- Taylor Chorney
- Thomas Greiss
- Ian Cole (RFA)
- Brian Dumoulin (RFA)
- Beau Bennett (RFA)
Of those nine UFA players, scratch Martin and Ehrhoff off the list. Both are on the wrong side of 30. Despite being valuable players now, they are likely to receive contract extensions that will take them beyond their most useful years. The Penguins have the defense prospects to replace them cheaply in the short term and perhaps talent-wise in the long run. Parting with them will save $9 million off of last year’s books, huge savings no matter who is being lost.
Winnik and Comeau played very well this season, despite their late-season troubles. Both are likely to command significant raises on their salaries in 2014-15, and neither is so valuable or so young that the Pens might not replace them internally. Adams has already been written off, and Downie, despite scoring 14 goals this season, had 17 penalty minutes for every goal he scored — not something the Penguins are likely to experiment with again.
Further writing off Greiss, who posted underwhelming numbers in limited starts this year, the Penguins are looking at re-signing perhaps only two or three of their pending unrestricted free agents. Should they let them all walk, that’s a combined $15 million off the books ahead of free agency.
Avoiding big deals for veterans and letting highly-valued fringe players walk in free agency is a good way to keep overvalued contracts in check. Those players who performed well are likely to receive over-market raises in a shallow free agent class, a trap the Penguins flatly have to avoid.
Rutherford got good value last season in collecting Downie, Comeau and Ehrhoff for a combined $6 million. Those types of players — if not those same players — will be available again.
Identifying those kinds of guys is what separates big spenders from contenders who spend big.
Friday, we’ll look at what options exist internally to replace them, and whether the Penguins can really address their problems at forward with what they’ve already got on the farm.
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