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Kingerski: The Penguins Puzzle Doesn’t Fit

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Jeff Skinner: Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire

Update 12:56 p.m: The Pittsburgh Penguins traded winger Conor Sheary and defenseman Matt Hunwick to the Buffalo Sabres for a conditional 2019 fourth round selection. The move cleared $5.25 million cap space. Read the full story. 

Update: 3:15 p.m.: Sources confirm the Penguins and defenseman Jack Johnson have agreed to a five-year deal, terms are slightly variable. Read that story here. 

Update: 3:55 p.m.: Jim Rutherford said the Penguins and Riley Sheahan are closer to a deal. 

Something just isn’t right with the Pittsburgh Penguins puzzle. With a little juggling, such as anchoring Conor Sheary and Dominik Simon to the left wing, the Penguins will have a balanced but less than an optimal lineup. They need a center, need to sign defenseman Jamie Oleksiak, would like bottom pairing defense help, and have only $5 million of salary cap space left.

Taking sourced reports, first by Jason Mackey of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette then by our Matt Gajtka, Penguins GM Jim Rutherford is at least pondering the return of gritty bottom-six left winger Chris Kunitz. And Matt reported yesterday, via a source connected to the Penguins front office, the team has checked on pending UFA Anthony DucLair.

For context, the Penguins current lineup, on any given night, could look like this:

Guentzel–Crosby–Hornqvist
Hagelin–Malkin–Rust
Sheary–Brassard–Kessel
Simon–Blueger?–Sprong

Dumoulin–Letang
Oleksiak–Schultz
Hunwick/Ruhwedel–Maatta  (Or reversed)

(We’ll debate the Penguins expected lineup, after July 1. For now, consider this a list of RW’s, C’s and LW’s). Signing either Kunitz or DucLair would push a left winger to the press box. So far so good. With the addition of a fourth line center and one low rent free agent, the Penguins would have about $3 million left to sign Oleksiak, which could get tight but manageable.

And, the above lineup, in any of its configurations, will be competitive but could certainly improve especially in the bottom six.

Now, factor the potential to sign defenseman Jack Johnson. Credible reports of talks persist. However, TSN’s Insider Bob McKenzie reported Johnson could see offers in the $6 million range, despite Johnson’s swoon last season.

Something isn’t adding up. Or it’s adding up to well over the salary cap. McKenzie’s assessment is unlikely to be a pure guess or ridiculously far off. But, even if we remove McKenzie’s comments and assume Johnson must take a big pay cut from his $4.5 million cap hit, the Penguins are already out of money before negotiations take place.

And we haven’t even mentioned the reported interest in Carolina LW Jeff Skinner, yet.

Skinner, Johnson–Someone’s Gotta Go

The Penguins can’t add a player of significance without subtraction. So, who goes?

While many ticket buyers long ago decried it should be Conor Sheary, the Penguins lack of left-wingers offers some job security for the small winger. Like the PHN reported Max Domi offer, Sheary could be involved in a swap for a higher scoring LW like Skinner, but the Penguins would still need to shed another $3 million to make a Skinner trade work.

An extra $3 million is essentially Olli Maatta with room to spare, or Matt Hunwick with an additional NHL player. (With everything laid out linearly, it’s also easy to see why the Penguins declined to tender center Riley Sheahan, as they potentially could have been stuck with a big salary hit via arbitration).

Last weekend, Carolina acquired defenseman Dougie Hamilton who set their blueline corps. In fact, according to Corsica Hockey and Daily Faceoff, each of the Hurricanes pairings are above average, and their third pair in the top-ranked third pairing in the NHL.

The Hurricanes lack a talented center but the Penguins are in a unique position with centers–they have three top-shelf pivots but the third, Derick Brassard, will cost only $3 million this season. So, if the Penguins dealt him, their return would be constricted to a similar salary cap hit, unless they lose the deal and leave a hole in their lineup which they would have no cap space to fix.

The same line of thinking goes for signing Johnson. How? If $6 million is the correct range, and again we’re relying on McKenzie, the Penguins would need to shed two well paid NHL players, likely including a defenseman, to make it work.

As Rutherford told select reporters Monday, as quoted by beat writer extraordinaire Jonathan Bombulie, “I’m creative, but I’m not a magician.”

Perhaps there is a suggestion box outside Rutherford’s office. As of now, the Penguins are hemmed into their zone. The Penguins moves on July 1 will be limited to a low-end free agent unless Rutherford makes major moves to shed salary and create space.

But Rutherford has before shocked everyone and made the folks at the NHL trade desk shake their head. Though escaping this situation would make him a magician.

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