Defenseman Marcus Pettersson had a breakout season, but in September 2019, the Penguins lack of salary cap space forced the restricted free agent to sign his paltry qualifying offer instead of a multi-year, market value deal. Pettersson eventually got paid in January, and the Penguins were on the clock for their next crop of restricted free agents, including Jared McCann.
One complicating factor, however, is the possible salary cap drop next season. That specter has sprung up like the villain you thought was dead in a horror movie.
While Pierre McGuire may have presented the nightmare scenario, the more likely outcome is a shared loss, spread over several years so teams can ice competitive teams and players aren’t forced to sign embarrassingly small contracts.
So, what is Jared McCann’s worth?
The versatile Penguins forward is a winger or center, depending on the Penguins needs. In the first three quarters of 2019-20, McCann returned to his natural position in the middle because of injuries to third-line center Nick Bjugstad.
“You can see (center) is his natural position. He’s got a comfort level. He can certainly play there. He has the ability to score at either position,” Mike Sullivan said on Dec. 20. “I think his speed is influential at both positions.”
In 2018-19, McCann made an offensive splash on Sidney Crosby’s left flank. Sullivan even moved LW staple Jake Guentzel to the right side to accommodate McCann on the left.
“What we like about Jared on the wing is his speed and his scoring ability. He’s got a pretty good straight-ahead game,” Sullivan said in the same answer. “He can take defensemen wide and create separation, and when he gets that separation, he can finish. That’s the dimension we like about him on the wing.”
McCann’s future value will depend on his position, too. If he is a left wing, he’ll be a third line LW because the Penguins likely stocked their shelves when they acquired Jason Zucker from Minnesota.
However, McCann has also been streaky. He didn’t score a goal in the final 22 games before the pandemic pause but scored 14 in the first 44 games he played. The same streakiness occurred last season when he splashed with Crosby on the LW, then quickly cooled. Last season, he scored goals in only one of his final 11 games.
Third line center value:
Nick Bonino bolted the Penguins via free agency in 2017 and signed a four-year, $16.1 million contract with Nashville. Bonino had 37 points, including 18 goals in 2016-17, but he also wears two Stanley Cup rings as a result of his defensive work on the Penguins third line.
Current Penguins center Nick Bjugstad draws a similar salary.
A glance around the Metro Division shows the $4 million range to be the appropriate payment for a third-line center. Washington Capitals pivot Lars Eller makes $3.5 million annually. Philadelphia grinder Scott Laughton makes only $2.3 million, but he was moved to LW.
The New York Islanders recently acquired Jean-Gabriel Pageau and inked him to a long-term deal with a $5 million annual salary.
So, casting Jared McCann as a center is going to cost the Penguins a chunk of change.
“I think when he plays center, there’s a little bit more of a burden of responsibility away from the puck down low in the defensive zone, faceoffs, things of that nature,” Sullivan continued. “It’s something that he’s used to because he’s been a center for most of his life.”
“He seems to have the puck more at center,” Sullivan concluded.
Salary Cap Constraints
The Pittsburgh Penguins have approximately $69 million committed to 15 players for next season, including $4.1 million to Bjugstad as their third-line center, according to CapFriendly.com.
The cap uncertainty will likely be resolved over several years, but a dip in the overall salary cap cannot be discounted as part of that agreement. So, will the Penguins have $81.5 million to spend or less?
That very situation and McCann’s pending RFA status means the Penguins have almost no urgency to sign him to a contract before all of that is sorted. However, extrapolating likely scenarios, the Penguins will have to make a short term choice on McCann’s position.
If he is their third-line center, they do not need Bjugstad’s salary on the books.
Jared McCann, 24, is a prime candidate for a four-year deal worth between $14-16 million. His production this season places him ahead of Bonino’s pace with the Penguins, and his versatility adds value.
McCann has 35 points (14g, 21a) in 66 games. While his name appeared on the Penguins injury list early in the season, he missed only a few games and his been durable in his four-year career.
The Penguins enthusiastic forward told PHN he was glad the Penguins added other young players.
“Yeah, a bit of a younger team. I don’t feel I feel so young anymore,” McCann laughed in September, not because he got older but because the Penguins room got younger. “It’s kind of good, but I feel like we have got the youth, and we’re ready to make a push.”
Under current CBA rules, McCann’s qualifying offer will be 10% greater than his current $1.25 million salary. The Penguins will assuredly make that offer whenever the offseason arrives, so they maintain his rights.
As noted with the Pettersson situation, Penguins GM Jim Rutherford is also a fair shake at the negotiating table. Sometimes, too fair. Recent contracts to defensemen have been healthy, including the $4 million-plus to Pettersson, Olli Maatta, and a six-year deal to forward Brandon Tanev. Even the $6 million annual payday to Jake Guentzel may have been a tad early, but Rutherford was proven correct on that one.
Our current “new normal” situation and its resolution will play a big role in McCann’s future earnings. So too will his position. But bet on Jared McCann going to center and bet on something close to a market value contract. A salary in the $3 million range would be fair, and $4 million would be the market price. The sides will eventually split the difference.