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Penguins Salary Cap: Is Ty Smith Going to Wilkes-Barre Really Inevitable?

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An outstanding performance by Ty Smith might be one of the best things that could happen to the Pittsburgh Penguins when training camp opens next month.

Unless it’s one of the worst.

Smith, acquired from New Jersey in the John Marino trade last month, is one of nine NHL-caliber defensemen on the Penguins’ depth chart, and one of their most gifted, offensively.

He also is the only one of the group who is eligible to be assigned to the team’s American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre without going through waivers. To say nothing of being the only one whose contract calls for him to receive a reduced salary ($70,000) when he is in the minors, compared to his NHL pay ($863,333).

Considering that the Penguins are not expected to carry more than seven defensemen on their Opening Night roster and that they have to pare a seven-figure total from their payroll before the start of the regular season — precisely how far they are over the salary-cap ceiling depends on which players are being projected to be in the NHL when the regular season begins — Smith is, at least for now, an obvious candidate for demotion.

He certainly would not be the first young player to be assigned to the AHL mostly — if not totally — because he wouldn’t have to make it through waivers to get there. That’s actually a nice option for the front office to have when dealing with the stresses of trying to trim its roster or become compliant with the salary-cap ceiling.

But it likely isn’t as simple as it might seem at first blush. Especially if Smith doesn’t allow it to be.

Which is entirely possible.

The Pittsburgh Penguins, after all, didn’t trade for Smith because they believed he could be a good guy to have around if/when they were facing some tough decisions on the regular-season roster. (Although that had to be a nice plus for Ron Hextall.)

They got him because he is a very good skater with solid offensive abilities, who played well enough in 2020-21 to claim a spot on the NHL’s all-rookie team.

He is, at 22, still a work-in-progress and, at 5-foot-11, 180 pounds, doesn’t provide any of the size or muscle the Penguins’ defense corps could use, but he has the potential to perform at a high level for a long time.

Beginning, perhaps, when he reports to camp.

Which definitely could complicate things for management if Hextall hasn’t traded a defenseman or two by then.

If Smith establishes himself as one of the Penguins’ three best left-handed defensemen — especially if he does it by a significant margin — sending him to Wilkes-Barre would fall somewhere between mismanagement and malpractice, considering that the Penguins figure to face a highly competitive battle for a playoff berth.

More than a few teams in the Eastern Conference have made significant strides during this offseason, and any personnel move the Penguins make that costs them even a point or two in the standings could have dire consequences when the playoff race is settled.

There also is the matter of the longer-term repercussions that an unwarranted trip to the minors could have on Smith’s development.

Now, it’s entirely possible that Smith, who has never played in the minors, would use such a demotion as motivation, would be driven to prove that sending him down was a lapse in judgment by the front office and coaching staff.

Then again, it also could be that it would lead to Smith doubting his own capabilities, losing confidence in the skills that made him an attractive addition in the first place.

There’s no guarantee he would react so badly, of course, but if the guy is projected to be a significant contributor to your team for years to come — and proves worthy of doing it at the start of 2022-23 — why take the risk?

Having a surplus of qualified players at any position is a nice problem to have for the people constructing a roster; it’s infinitely preferable to filling spots with guys whose hockey skills are better-suited to, say, manning a drive-thru window.

Smith definitely is not one of the latter, and if the Pittsburgh Penguins are lucky, he will give them a decision to make in early October. Or, more to the point, leave them with only one reasonable course of action.

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Vince Gori
Vince Gori
8 days ago

It’s a good position to have, I agree, but I think he is not the best option for this team by demoting him. I’d rather clear the logjam and remove two of the group of Dumoulin, Joseph, or Pettersson.

Knobman
Knobman
8 days ago

If the current headcount stays the same, Smith would need to play much better in training camp than POJ to stay in the NHL. We need to see what POJ can do before finding out what Smith can do. Smith had a lousy season in NJ and probably needs some time in the AHL.

cspu81
cspu81
8 days ago
Reply to  Knobman

Having a lousy season in NJ is like having a bad meal at Waffle House. I’m excited to see how he plays with the Pens, and their coaches

Bachinga
Bachinga
8 days ago
Reply to  cspu81

Defensemen should thrive under Ruff…he didn’t…all Smith had to do was move the puck up to any of the Dev’s gifted forwards…he couldn’t…

Bachinga
Bachinga
8 days ago
Reply to  cspu81

NJ’s issues were, in order, injuries, horrific goaltending and only 8 serviceable forwards none of whom were all that good at killing penalties.

Benny
Benny
8 days ago
Reply to  Bachinga

You say all he had to do was move the puck to the devils gifted forwards then go on to say they only have 8 “serviceable” forwards. Also forgot to mention he has to play defense, and bad goaltending will hurt a defensmans stats. He also played with pk subban who is not the type he should be paired with. The way I see it POJ, Smith , and Friedman have equal shots at a 3rd pair spot and whoever shows best in training camp gets it. It’s that simple. The cap issue is minor and can be worked out… Read more »

Benny
Benny
8 days ago
Reply to  Knobman

There is no reason to place POJ ahead of Smith besides your personal preference. He has more NHL experience.

Brandon O
Brandon O
8 days ago

Pettersson is fine as a 2nd pair d, he’s just overpaid by about a million or so. His contract is not easily moved. It would probably cost a decent pick or prospect to dump. Slim chance that happens. Trading Poj is possible, say for a high pedigree forward prospect that is NHL ready and in the same predicament. Still unlikely. If Smith makes the team that means waiving Ruhwedel AND Friedman. I could see them both being snatched and creating a hole in our d depth. Smith going down and Poj playing 3ld is the best situation for the long… Read more »

djr5899
djr5899
8 days ago
Reply to  Brandon O

Even retaining 1M in salary for the next 3 years on Pettersson would be worth moving him. If you trade Pettersson for a pick/prospect and retain 1M, they can end up with a 23 man roster and about 1.9M in cap space remaining. I think Friedman may end up being a waiver casualty, as Rutta brings much of the same aspects Friedman was providing.

Benny
Benny
8 days ago
Reply to  djr5899

So who takes Pettersons place if they move him? Seriously not a good option.

Benny
Benny
8 days ago
Reply to  Brandon O

If you dump Petterson there is no one to take his place, and they are not going to lose Ruhwedel AND Frienman for nothing that would just be stupid.

len
len
8 days ago
Reply to  Brandon O

Wow,good point.We should not be worrying about sending him down HURTING hid confidence,we sould be considering how it will help it.

Cal
Cal
8 days ago

I wouldn’t be surprised if Smith asked to be traded if he doesn’t make the team. He will take a huge pay cut in the minors. Not many of us would work for 10% of top given salary.

Bachinga
Bachinga
8 days ago

Welcome to the 2015 Flyers, folks…this is what he did all through his tenure there..carried half a team because he never seriously addressed their salary cap issues and signed plugs while he played Musical Chairs with his waiver exempts…

These problems could have all been addressed in 2021 at the Draft…barring that…at the 2022 trade deadline…WD40 and duct tape couldn’t help this franchise…but would probably do a better job as GM…

Jstripsky
Jstripsky
8 days ago

Does it make sense to bite the bullet sooner rather than later regarding getting under the cap? It seems the sooner a deal gets made, there will be more teams with available cap space and have a need that a player you want to unload can fill.

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