The Pittsburgh Penguins salary cap situation is tight, again. Monday, Penguins GM Jim Rutherford spent the extra cash from the Phil Kessel trade on speedy thumper Brandon Tanev and now the bills are coming due for restricted free agents Marcus Petterson, Zach Aston-Reese and Teddy Blueger. By next summer, the Penguins will also have to pay starting goalie Matt Murray and newly found spark plug Jared McCann. Cue the Penguins trade rumors.
Right now, the Penguins have about $2.3 million in remaining salary cap space to ink Pettersson, Aston-Reese and Blueger, according to CapFriendly.com.
Yeah, something has to give.
It might be anyone’s guess where GM Jim Rutherford goes from here, but trades remain a better way to add talent than via free agency.
One option is to move Jack Johnson for a pick and hope some combination of Zach Trotman and Juuso Riikola can create a competent third pair with Justin Schultz while upping Pettersson and Erik Gubranson in the rotation. That seems to be a tall order and would hurt the Penguins penalty killing, as much as losing Schultz would hurt their PP.
The Penguins have a couple or few names who could be sought by other teams including Bryan Rust, goalie Tristan Jarry, and even Justin Schultz. And a few interesting names are floating on the trade market, too. To be clear, the names below our thoughts based on the Penguins’ needs, not based on sources.
3: Travis Hamonic, RHD. $3.85 million
The former New York Islanders d-man is tough and has some offensive upside. He has exceeded 30 points several times in his career. He doesn’t have Justin Schultz’ offensive game, but he has a better defensive game and makes $1.65 million less than Schultz and $150,000 less than Gudbranson.
Last season he had 19 points (7g, 12a) in 69 games but no power play points. To acquire Hamonic the Penguins would need to sacrifice Schultz and lose their second PP quarterback, or sacrifice the high level of pushback from Gudbranson and include a spare winger.
Calgary has reportedly made Hamonic available. GM Brad Treliving has built a solid Calgary squad but they were also washed away in the playoffs. It’s a tough fit for either team.
2. Jesse Puljujarvi, RW. RFA
PHN was told the Penguins and Edmonton Oilers had initial contact about Puljujarvi but the Penguins were turned off by the price tag, believed to be Bryan Rust. A lot has changed since then. Edmonton should have a better sense of the market–a lot of teams reportedly called but to date, nothing has happened.
The 2016 fourth-overall pick has requested a trade out of Edmonton and threatened to play in Europe if a trade doesn’t happen. He has just 37 points in 127 career games and has not yet developed a complete game. However, he’s only played two NHL seasons and the reports out of Edmonton regarding the Oilers mistakes and demands on the young player are scathing.
If the Penguins deal a player who makes a larger salary, such as Bryan Rust, they could increase their salary cap space to close to $4 million which would allow them to keep all three RFAs. But the Penguins also have to balance Rust’s value vs. their RFA’s value plus the risk of Puljujarvi and be careful to not hurt their lineup.
Puljujarvi could become the top-six forward the Penguins need and give them salary cap space. Or, he could become the project which gives them salary cap space. Edmonton is reportedly shopping for a top-six winger with 20-goal potential.
The Penguins have become a Finnish repository and Puljujarvi would have company in the NHL or AHL. Edmonton’s ask for Rust remains steep and they already have Kris Russel, so GM Ken Holland’s link to Jack Johnson from last summer is negated.
1. Rasmus Ristolainen, RHD. $5.4 million.
Ristolainen, 24, has three more years at a $5.4 million cap hit remaining and Buffalo is stocked on the right side. Buffalo GM and former Penguins AGM Jason Botterill acquired defenseman Colin Miller from Vegas Saturday and acquired Brandon Montour at the NHL trade deadline. The three defensemen are expensive and Ristolainen’s struggles last season push him to third in line. Not many teams want to spend $5.4 million on a third pairing d-man.
Ristolainen has surpassed 40 points in each of the past four seasons, but last season he sank to an eye-popping minus-41. That’s rock bottom.
Rutherford has been non-committal on the future of Justin Schultz. The second-pairing right side defender has not been able to duplicate the 51-point performance in 2016-17, which earned him a three-year, $16.5 million deal. So, the Penguins could look for another reclamation project, not that Ristolainen is in dire straights like Schultz was in 2016, but he could use a little Sergei Gonchar polishing.
Buffalo hired head coach Ralph Krueger to work with Ristolainen but things can change, too. Botterill waffled at the draft and did not say Ristolainen was untouchable and declined to say if Ristolainen had requested a trade. Botterill and his former Penguins’ boss hooked up on a deal last summer when the Penguins unloaded Matt Hunwick and Conor Sheary. Perhaps this summer Buffalo could use some combination of an offensive defenseman, a defensive defenseman, one of the Penguins spare wingers, and/or a potential number one goalie?
As PHN laid out the Penguins lines Tuesday, the Penguins have depth, will be hard to play against, an abundance of speed, but they’re a little short on talent.
It’s a tough go for Rutherford. He has to make a tough decision somewhere because the Penguins just don’t have enough money. Trading Bryan Rust is a difficult move because he brings everything the Penguins want. Trading Justin Schultz creates a need for the second power-play unit QB.