The second wave of the NHL free-agent frenzy is set to collide with the possibility of an NHL trade market about to boil over. The two are dependent on each other as much as the separate entities are competing with each other. Few teams accomplished their offseason goals, including the Pittsburgh Penguins, who are currently missing some bargains on the UFA market.
PHN has checked in with teams and agents on Tuesday, as the season fast approaches. There is optimism, but the key to unlocking the NHL trade market gridlock remains elusive.
PHN also learned, the Penguins haven’t made serious contact with multiple free agents who would seem to be good fits under head coach Mike Sullivan and the team direction.
The opening bell of the feeding frenzy may have sounded Tuesday afternoon when the Tampa Bay Lightning inked RFA Erik Cernak. The move, coupled with signing RFA Jan Rutta, put Tampa Bay more than $6 million OVER the salary cap.
Even when Tampa Bay places Nikita Kucherov, who will miss the first few months of the season, on LTIR, they will be over the cap, and they need to sign RFA Anthony Cirelli.
That’s the long way to say — the trade market should loosen up anytime now. It has to.
One free-agent source said, “it’s hard to get in the middle of discussions.” Teams are still trying to move players via trade before they hit the free-agent market.
In the meantime, there are bargains. Anthony Duclair, who scored 20 goals for Ottawa, signed in Florida for just $1.7 million. It stands to reason more UFAs will be signing for less than they want.
Penguins Salary Cap Structure
Like most teams, the flat salary cap caught Penguins. Circumstance squashed the best-laid plans as teams scrambled to find space.
The Penguins dabbled in the free-agent market when they picked up minimum salary center Mark Jankowski and winger Evan Rodrigues. Tough winger Jordan Nolan will also get a shot in training camp, but he’s on an AHL deal.
According to PuckPedia.com, the Penguins have about $1.3 million in salary-cap space remaining.
According to PHN, the Pittsburgh Penguins will be in a heavyweight fight just to make the playoffs. The Atlantic Division has six playoff teams in the field of eight.
“In a situation like this, you don’t know how teams are going to come back. Are they going to come back where they were a year ago,” Penguins GM Jim Rutherford asked rhetorically on Monday. “It’s going to be harder. There are going to be injuries. … certainly, the East is a very strong division. It’s teams that are used to each other.”
Good teams that are used to each other, then add the Boston Bruins who were displaced when the NHL formed the all-Canadian division because Ottawa, Toronto, and Montreal can’t cross the border.
Per the one-time NHL format, the top four teams in each division will make the playoffs—no wild cards. The Atlantic Division will be stacked, which means the Penguins will have to be at their best to make the playoffs.
Here’s how the Penguins can increase their cap space:
If GM Jim Rutherford chooses, he could stash a pair of his minimum salary veterans on the taxi squad. Any veteran placed on the taxi squad must first clear waivers as if they were sent to the AHL, but the odds of keeping the player are increased in this crazy year.
Also, according to PuckPedia.com, the Penguins have 24 players on their roster. The maximum is 23. With the taxi squad on hand, the Penguins could reasonably trim their roster to 21 players and recoup the salary cap space. That also includes Zach Aston-Reese who appears he spend the first month or more of the season on the injury list.
In other words, the Penguins can stash about $2.1 million or more on their taxi squad, which will increase their cap space to nearly $3.5 million.
Always leaving enough cap space to call up a player from the squad gives the Penguins about $2.8 million of salary-cap space.
Improving the Pittsburgh Penguins
The Penguins could improve their center position. Jankowski might work well, but recently a Western Conference NHL scout did not give us a good review.
PHN has learned the Penguins have not pursued free-agent center, Carl Soderberg. Pierre LeBrun tweeted that teams could have Soderberg for well less than $2 million in this topsy-turvy market. The 35-year-old center had 35 points (17g, 18a) last season for Arizona.
For near peanuts, Soderberg will bolster a team’s third line.
Sources also confirmed the Penguins have not pursued Soderberg’s Arizona teammate, Michael Grabner, either. Grabner’s speed and penalty killing should be familiar from his years with the New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils.
“No change,” a source said regarding the Penguins’ lack of interest.
Erik Haula is probably the crown jewel of available third-line centers. The center remains a free agent and his asking price has likely slipped below $3 million. PHN believes the Penguins have checked in on Haula, but not yet with serious intent.
Offensively talented but defensive liability Andreas Athanasiou is also floating about on the market.
The Penguins could solidify their roster for much less than it would cost in a normal, non-pandemic year. Like most NHL teams, the Penguins are missing out on improving themselves while they follow the typical script. The Pittsburgh Penguins are in danger of not just not winning the Stanley Cups, but also of missing the playoffs, entirely.
The NHL season will be compressed. Time will be of the essence for every game. The same applies to personnel decisions. Now might be the best time to capitalize. Like many teams, the Penguins are missing some good bargains on the free-agent market.