Believe it or not, even though a captain has not yet hoisted the Stanley Cup, the 2020 NHL Draft and free agency are less than 20 days away. Yet there are significant questions surrounding the Pittsburgh Penguins trade block and offseason issues. Their money is still tight, and the roster is not yet significantly better than the team which whimpered away in the Toronto bubble without much trace of pushback.
So, while we wait for the Tampa Bay Lightning or Dallas Stars to skate with the Cup, the Penguins trade whispers around Penguins goalie Matt Murray have cooled. The Edmonton Oilers reportedly back off, and it appears the Colorado Avalanche don’t like the price tag.
GM Jim Rutherford didn’t wait until the body was cold before he swapped his first-round pick and a prospect to Toronto Maple Leafs for Kasperi Kapanen and a prospect.
In the meantime, Rutherford signed Juuso Riikola and Jared McCann to two-year contracts. And, the Penguins have about $6 million of salary-cap space.
1. What are the Pittsburgh Penguins Plans for Jared McCann?
This week, McCann signed a two-year deal, which carries a $2.94 million AAV. He will make less this season and more next season, but it averages to $2.94 million.
Is he the third-line center? The results have been OK, but re-upping McCann means the Penguins will be mostly the same team they’ve been in the last two seasons.
However, the new contract also doesn’t remove the possibility of trading McCann. It may make it easier because an acquiring team would gain cost certainty, rather than a new contract hinging on an arbitrator.
Gut Feeling: Patience may be the best action. It is easy to assume Rutherford has surveilled the potential 3C candidates and found the field to be lacking. Perhaps head coach Mike Sullivan and assistant coach Mike Vellucci can get into McCann’s noggin and give him a taste for offense. If things don’t improve, McCann will have value at the trade deadline.
2. How will Riikola get on the ice?
The Penguins dished over $1 million per season for two seasons to Riikola. A depth defenseman, such as Chad Ruhwedel, should make close to $700,000.
Rutherford went to bat for defenseman Jack Johnson, as did new assistant coach Todd Reirden. Johnson did have a solid year until he and Kris Letang became a painfully bad pairing during Brian Dumoulin’s absence. The Penguins are unlikely to trade Johnson (and no, a buyout is not a plausible option), so how does Riikola get on the ice?
The Penguins need more offense from the blue line, and Riikola is a cheap option who could be a little jolt.
The only way Riikola will mature into an NHL defenseman is to play.
Gut feeling: The Pittsburgh Penguins will be able to slip Riikola through waivers to the WBS Penguins, and he can finally work on his game in a competitive situation. Otherwise, the Penguins will have wasted money and not developed Riikola.
3. Marc-Andre Fleury
I have no idea how a storybook Pittsburgh Penguins return could happen. If I were in Fleury’s shoes, I would exhaust every option to be a starter before allowing a return to Pittsburgh to be a 1A or backup goalie. I’d live in Buffalo before I agreed to be second fiddle. I may also demand a clause in my contract against goalie competitions (partially in jest).
Sources close to Fleury have gone radio silent, so we can’t offer any professional insight other than logic.
4. Brock Boeser
Vancouver Canucks center Brock Boeser isn’t entirely on the NHL trade block, but league sources told PHN the price tag for the former Calder Trophy finalist is a legitimate top-four defenseman. We haven’t heard his name in the Penguins trade inquiries, but at least one Eastern Conference powerhouse certainly has kicked the tires.
5. Dustin Byfuglien
Don’t expect RHD Dustin Byfuglien to enter the conversation for any team. That ship has sailed.
6. What will the Penguins Get for Murray?
Just in case the starting goalie list wasn’t big enough, this weekend, Detroit Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard hit the market. And, he sounded like a goalie who feels he has something to prove.
It was widely assumed Rutherford wanted to recoup a first-round pick for Murray. No one has yet confirmed the asking price, but it seems to be a reasonable ask, in a normal market.
So, without Edmonton in the mix, with Colorado holding the line, with the Toronto Maple Leafs dangling Freddy Andersen, Marc-Andre Fleury on the market, Howard lurking, and Braden Holtby on the free-agent market, will Murray’s value increase or decrease as the NHL Draft approaches?
Will Rutherford find himself in a game of chicken, or has it already started?
Gut feeling: Rutherford is not going to look good in the Murray trade. Murray’s .899 save percentage this season compares poorly to Jarry’s .921 stoppage. Murray didn’t have a good 2018-19 season, either. The Penguins will not get a great return because of the flooded market and the collapsing hockey economy. Due to circumstance, Rutherford won’t get a great deal and will get a good bit of criticism or bellyaching when the deal goes down.
The Boston Bruins are the latest team that may not spend up to the 2020-21 salary cap. The Jacobs family makes its money from hospitality and tourism, which obviously is an industry not doing well during Coronavirus.
PHN was one of the outlets which reported the Penguins also might not spend to the $81.5 million cap limit next season. There was also a contradictory report too.
On Saturday, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman was non-committal on fans being allowed in arenas at the start of next season; that’s another chunk of cash out of owner’s pockets. The Penguins should be forgiven for reducing payroll for next season. It’s not like the team is pocketing revenue-sharing money while the roster suffers.
How does all of that factor? Could we see another Nick Bjugstad-type salary dump, and the Penguins trade a player like Patric Hornqvist?
Gut feeling: Yes, I would be slightly surprised to see the Penguins have an $81.5 million payroll, but bonuses have already been paid, so the Penguins don’t need to hurry.
No one has yet done the full story on the hockey economic collapse. It’s happening. Some mocked Pierre McGuire when he said the cap could drop by 25-40%, but owners could have dropped the cap by 25% and still lost money next season if fans aren’t in the stands at the start. Many owners will simply lower their own salary cap.
The Arizona Coyotes are behind on arena payments.
Worse, expect the $81.5 million cap to last for three seasons, and even then it may be a chore to raise it unless that COVID-19 vaccine lands in October or November.
One way for the Pittsburgh Penguins to save $5 million is by 2019 first-round pick Sam Poulin pushing past Jason Zucker on the depth chart. That would make Zucker and his salary expendable (again). Perhaps the Penguins could recoup some of the steep price they paid.