More goals are not always better. The Buffalo Sabres acquired Carolina’s goal-scoring left winger Jeff Skinner for a prospect and a compilation of second and third round picks, Thursday night and Penguins fans gritted their teeth at a perceived missed opportunity. But it wasn’t a missed opportunity. Skinner didn’t fit with the Penguins lineup or in the Penguins salary cap structure.
Carolina shed Skinner’s $6 million salary and $5.75 million cap hit but did not take back any salary. In other words, Carolina chopped a chunk of change off their payroll. The Penguins could not afford to take on a salary without a corresponding move to open cap space, and Skinner’s addition would not have outweighed the necessary subtractions.
Would Skinner make the Penguins better than Carl Hagelin does? Through base stat sheet addition of goals it would appear so, but in the larger three-dimensional puzzle of a hockey team, Hagelin’s skillset would be a loss. PHN has written extensively about Hagelin’s importance to Evgeni Malkin’s headline-grabbing season.
Skinner’s defensive work is a problem. First, Penguins fans should imagine a lineup which includes Skinner, Phil Kessel, Daniel Sprong and the regular-season version of Jake Guentzel. Penguins goaltender Matt Murray might hang a white flag above the net with that lineup. The loss of Hagelin would also greatly diminish the Penguins forecheck, puck pressure and puck retrieval unless you think Kessel would go into the corner to battle for puck possession.
Removing Hagelin’s $4 million salary would not have been enough. The Penguins would have needed to shed another $2 million beyond that.
Another potential salary the Penguins would have been forced to move to accommodate Skinner would have been Kessel. It wouldn’t make much sense to trade a 92-point scorer who is lax on defense for a 49-point scorer who suffers the same malady. In fairness to Skinner, last year was a down year, and he could be referred to as a 60-point scorer. But Skinner is a similar player to Kessel with a comparable salary, and there is room for only one in a lineup.
The Penguins could have achieved a net talent gain by dealing Kessel for more than the cost to acquire Skinner, but that is a lot of moving parts and still no guarantee the Penguins would be better.
Some in the fanbase are still unhappy over defenseman free-agent acquisition Jack Johnson’s contract. The respectable Penguins blog Pensburgh blamed Johnson’s signing for the Penguins inability to add Skinner.
Had the Penguins not added a legitimate defenseman via free agency or trade, Chad Ruhwedel would be the sixth defenseman and Zach Trotman would be the seventh. Both are much more suited to their current role as a seventh and eighth defenseman who only appear when needed. Further, Johnson’s addition will reduce Kris Letang’s minutes which will improve Letang’s play.
In the run-up to free agency, sources told PHN the Penguins coaches were ecstatic when they landed Johnson. Before the kerfuffle between Columbus head coach John Tortorella and Penguins GM Jim Rutherford after the Johnson signing press conference, Rutherford discussed the amount of tape the organization watched on Johnson. They’re confident last year wasn’t as bad as the numbers show, and Johnson’s skills fit very well with the Penguins scheme.
The third strike against Skinner’s acquisition would be lineup placement. Skinner would have been pressed into first line or third line duty. If Skinner played with Sidney Crosby, that means Guentzel would not. If Skinner played on the third line, the Penguins would have absorbed a nearly $6 million cap hit for a third liner and second power-play unit player.
The Penguins are a better team today than they likely would be with Skinner. And that’s why Rutherford, who is believed to have kicked the tires on that deal, stood pat.