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.