Brandon Tanev is a crash-and-bang bottom lines play which adds speed, tenacity, and grit. He was the Pittsburgh Penguins primary free-agent acquisition this summer. Jack Johnson is a stout defender who cleans the crease and has drawn internal praise as a top penalty killer. He was the Penguins primary free-agent acquisition last summer. Individually, each player presents strengths and is an asset. In a vacuum, each player is a contributor.
But the Penguins are cash-strapped. And the team was cash-strapped when each was acquired.
The Penguins GM Jim Rutherford is now openly discussing the possibility the team could get under the salary cap by opening night and sign RFA defenseman Marcus Pettersson without making a trade. PHN detailed the very narrow path in early July. Stick tap to The Athletic’s Josh Yohe for getting the public quote on the possibility.
And now the small mistakes have big implications.
Last summer, the Penguins shipped Matt Hunwick to Buffalo and paid them with Conor Sheary, himself somewhat of a cap casualty. This summer, Phil Kessel was both a cap casualty and a necessary divorce. The Penguins recouped about $2 million but promptly shifted it to Tanev who scored a career-high 29-points, last season. The previous summer, they flipped the Hunwick/Sheary cash to Johnson.
I can already hear some of you screaming, “But Kingerski, you’ve defended Jack Johnson from Day 1!” I have. And I’ll continue to defend the player from the silliness which exaggerates the negative to epic proportions and steadfastly refuses to acknowledge the positive.
Rutherford’s good intentions to add solid players has trapped the Penguins against the salary cap. Unlike years past, there is not a willing cash-flush trading partner ready to eat a little bit of the burden in exchange for an equivalent asset.
That is why Rutherford is preparing to tighten his belt without a trade.
Last summer, the Penguins needed a right-side defenseman and preferably one with some offensive punch. Johnson wasn’t a mistake, but only getting a defensive left-side defenseman was. The decision left the Penguins vulnerable nearly all season. They searched for pairings among a gaggle of lefties and back-pairing defensemen pressed into top-four minutes.
In Tanev’s case, he is slightly overpaid. $3.5 million for a 27-year-old player who hasn’t yet cracked 30 points in a season exceeds the player’s value (the term is somewhat irrelevant for this discussion).
Had the Penguins used the Kessel cost savings for RFA defenseman Marcus Pettersson, the Penguins wouldn’t be as deep, but any subsequent trades would be for the express purpose of improving the Penguins instead of dishing assets for savings, now or later. And, the lineup would not be much different.
Pittsburgh Penguins Benefits
Tanev will help the team. That’s an easy statement to defend. Fans are going to enjoy his tireless forecheck and energy. One cannot fault a player for signing a contract which is $500,000-$750,000 too much. PHN+ did a film session on Tanev’s game to determine his potential contributions to the Penguins. The offense may not be high on the list.
And, Johnson, once you peel away the stigma attached by social media, helps the Pittsburgh Penguins in specific ways.
Being close to the salary cap ceiling means the Penguins will squeeze Pettersson, but it also means they cannot improve their team in-season without making a salary dump or even-money hockey trade. The former has proven difficult to impossible this summer. The latter is always difficult.
Without a significant alteration to the Penguins’ current salary cap crunch, next summer is going to be even more complicated when the Penguins try to keep Matt Murray, Jared McCann, and Justin Schultz. Of that list, only Schultz is not in line for a hefty raise. We may also add newly acquired winger Alex Galchenyuk to the list before too long, too.
In June, a hockey fan approached me at a child’s birthday party, which we both attended. He looked around, then whispered, “I actually like Jack Johnson.” And it’s OK. The social media onslaught won’t hear of it, but at $3.25 million per season, Johnson is paid in the bottom third of veteran NHL defensemen (excluding bubble NHL-AHL players who make close to the league minimum).
The Johnson signing comes only with a small “but.” The Penguins needed a right-handed defenseman and a little more offense. Olli Maatta and Jamie Oleksiak were not going to provide it from the third pairing, nor was it advisable to ask Johnson to be the third pairing, right-side defenseman for more than four months.
And when you analyze the Tanev signing, it comes only with a small disclaimer. It was just a bit too much money, but he’ll be a wicked grinder for a team who wants to add more of that.
Those small asterisks to each situation are not much harm, singularly. But they’re adding up to a big impact which is threatening to cost the Pittsburgh Penguins more than a few dollars. It’s threatening to cost them another valuable asset.