A pair of players delivered their best for the Pittsburgh Penguins on Sunday. Radim Zohorna was a standout in the first of the split-squad games, and Sam Poulin was the impact player in the second game. With their hearts on their sleeves, both are fighting to make their NHL dreams a reality, and the Penguins organization is getting exactly what it hoped for.
Yet, it also appears to be for naught.
In the long term, one spot will be open among the Penguins’ top 12 forwards. That’s one spot for more than a half dozen qualified players with significant NHL experience and a couple more Penguins prospects.
There should be competition for at least two spots.
Whether injured winger Jake Guentzel misses one, five, or more games to begin the season, he’ll return to the lineup sooner than later. His status isn’t the problem, though it does mean the Penguins will have to carry 13 forwards and only six defensemen until he returns.
As it is currently constituted, the Penguins’ salary cap configuration does not allow for more. Barring a trade or additional injury requiring LTIR, the Penguins are somewhere between $220,000 under the cap and $79,000 over it, pending the 13th forward or seventh defenseman.
Correction: CapFriendly shows the Penguins able to carry 22 players
Past history shows coach Mike Sullivan has typically chosen extra defensemen rather than extra forwards. When Guetnzel returns, expect the Penguins to carry seven D-men with one spare forward.
So, how could the Penguins and president of hockey operations/GM Kyle Dubas work so hard for a competitive training camp yet not award the winner or winners of that competition?
Answer: Hextall’s follies.
Former GM Ron Hextall didn’t necessarily err when he signed the player formerly heralded as “Big” Jeff Carter to a two-year contract at a significant pay cut. Sure, the second year was probably not the best idea and could have been a deal breaker, but at the time of signing in February 2022, it seemed like it had a reasonable chance of being a successful move.
Until then, Carter had again become a goal-scoring machine and wildly popular amongst the fanbase. Remember the care package of Welch’s gummy candy that became a viral sensation?
Carter was a big deal, in a good way.
No, Hextall’s true follies were giving Carter a full no-movement clause and the signing bonus. If the second year of the contract was the return gift for the reduced salary and not a deal breaker, the signing bonus created a front-loaded incentive that made Carter’s contract a 35+ deal, and thus inexorably tied to the Penguins’ salary cap structure, barring waivers or trade.
However, Hextall compounded one error by dipping it in the wet cement of a full no-movement clause, removing the possibility of waivers or trade without player approval.
Carter is now a Pittsburgh resident with a family. At the end of your career, would you voluntarily leave your family for seven to nine months? The correct answer is, in all probability, no.
Even if Carter agreed to waivers, he still counts for the full $3.125 million against the cap, and the Penguins can not afford to replace him, even with a minimum-salary player.
For every person on X (formerly Twitter) who demands the team remove Carter from the Pittsburgh Penguins lineup, understand that the real-world choice is seven defensemen and 12 forwards or seven defensemen and 13 forwards.
Hey, don’t hate the player.
With some foreboding irony, Zorhorna and Poulin would combine to account for $1.638 million, almost half of Carter’s $3.125 million cap hit ($1.562 million).
It is fair to say that Carter would be competing for a job if not for the guarantee. Last week, he quickly brushed aside questions about last season, though he acknowledged it was not a good season.
“That’s last season,” Carter said.
Perhaps if he were to compete for a spot in the Penguins lineup, he would win. Perhaps the competition would be good for him, too. As Sullivan defiantly noted last season, Carter was among the top 10 in faceoff winning percentage, and more puck possession isn’t bad. Carter’s game also saw an uptick when he was eventually moved away from the more onerous defensive role and down to the fourth line.
Carter’s burden will be further lessened this season with an apparent move from center to the fourth-line RW. Yet Poulin and Zohorna could each play center on the fourth line, allowing Noel Acciari to be the wrecking ball-type winger he is known to be.
Sunday, Zohorna told PHN he felt time was against him, and if he didn’t make the NHL roster this season, he wasn’t sure what the future would hold.
“I think this might be my last year to make a team and play in the NHL. So I’ll do everything for it,” the 6-foot-6 forward said.
Poulin and Alex Nylander have also expressed a deep desire to make the team and get their careers back on track.
The vitality and energy of young players fighting to stay in the NHL have long been forgotten in Pittsburgh. It’s been seven years since a group of mid-20somethings, including Bryan Rust and Connor Sheary, jolted the Penguins lineup en route to the 2016 Stanley Cup championship.
It’s been seven years since the Penguins had some fresh faces ready to claim spots, too.
Sullivan promised the battle for NHL ice would continue after training camp. Players who stay will be pushed by the players trying to get here. It’s the proper sentiment, but if not for Hextall’s folly, one more job would be up for grabs, and one more player who fought to earn it and would fight to keep it.
Of course, if I wanted to be cruel, I’d also mention the $916,667 cap hit for Jack Johnson or the $1.5625 million cap hit for eating part of Jeff Petry’s deal as additional factors limiting the Penguins’ salary cap flexibility.