With any great aspirations, there will be risks. With any seemingly impossible task, there will be greater risks necessary to achieve success. Pittsburgh Penguins president of hockey operations Kyle Dubas is setting about a unique course that could give the Penguins one more shot at relevance or humble the franchise into the next chapter.
Actually, either result seems like a step forward.
Friday, Dubas seemed to lay out his plan for the next couple of years, with a plan for what happens after that, too. The Penguins have just over $20 million in salary cap space and a few lineup holes to fill (though Dubas also confirmed he wouldn’t repeat the mistake of the Ron Hextall era and spend all of it, thus allowing cap flexibility to bring up prospects who have earned the right).
*You can watch the entire press conference on the National Hockey Now YouTube page here.
The easy thing for the Penguins to do on July 1 would be to load up a few briefcases full of money and offer them to the big-name free agents, such as Tyler Bertuzzi, who would immediately fill the hole on the left wing.
But that’s not going to happen. The Penguins aren’t giving years and big money and term to free agents.
It’s a gambit by Dubas. He understands the Penguins’ situation will be drastically different in five years. Perhaps they hit on a few draft picks and are in playoff contention, or perhaps they’ll be in the midst of a tear-it-down rebuild, but by 2026, they won’t be shopping for a long-term solution on Sidney Crosby’s or Evgeni Malkin’s wing.
So why commit to paying now for what you won’t need then or can buy when needed?
As a side note, that strategy also seems to jeopardize Jake Guentzel’s long-term Penguins’ future. Will the team commit seven or eight years to Guentzel, knowing Crosby might only play half that long?
They are sobering thoughts, but it seems Dubas has already been through them and is establishing a long-term plan.
On Friday, Dubas passingly referenced discussing if P.O Joseph could assume Brian Dumoulin’s role on the Penguins’ blue line and if Ty Smith could take a more permanent role in the NHL.
If one or both of those occur, Dubas will save a few more million, allowing for greater use of the Penguins’ $20 million salary cap space.
In the short term, Dubas’s plan is also a gambit, but it will be an interesting one. This writer’s takeaway from the Friday press conference was that Dubas would go hunting for castoffs and players squeezed out by their cap hit on the NHL trade market.
For example, many PHN readers immediately jumped on Taylor Hall. The Boston Bruins will undergo significant changes and be hit with a $4.5 million cap overage next season. Hall probably isn’t the right candidate because the Bruins will need him alongside their new centers (Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci likely retire or should) and be desperate for offense.
But your thinking is in the right ballpark.
Dubas won’t chase the next Mikael Granlund, who didn’t and doesn’t fit the Penguins system, but he’ll be shopping for players whose current teams can’t afford them and want the cap space.
The Penguins have cap space and some contracts they’d like to move, too. The larger the acquisition, the greater the chance the Penguins will have to move a bad salary in the deal, too.
The safety net for Dubas’ bargain hunting will be brevity. If they make a mistake and a player doesn’t work, the adverse effects will be short-lived, perhaps only a season or two. Further, perhaps Dubas can move on from that player before the term expires.
Dubas also ruled out affixing draft picks to veteran salaries to facilitate a Penguins trade. They won’t be trading “the Owen Pickerings of the world,” according to the president of hockey operations. Dubas did that attach picks when the Toronto Maple Leafs traded Patrick Marleau and a conditional first-round pick to the Carolina Hurricanes, but that was a necessary evil necessary to get a Stanley Cup contender under the salary cap.
The Penguins have to reestablish playoff credibility before they can be again called a Stanley Cup contender.
The great risk Dubas is assuming is that other teams’ castaways can succeed with the Penguins, that he’ll be able to find the next Rickard Rakell and not the next Granlund. He’s looking for the next Jeff Carter trade, not the next Jeff Carter contract.
It’s a strategy that former GM Ray Shero dabbled with in free agency, adding low-risk, high-reward players around Crosby and Malkin, such as Ruslan Fedetenko and Petr Sykora. But that was 15 years ago, and the Penguins superstars could carry a team of AHL puck bags to the playoffs.
It will be a little different this time. It’s a fine needle to thread.