The Pittsburgh Penguins were guaranteed to lose one player via the 2021 Seattle Kraken expansion draft. No matter how wickedly any GM spun the chessboard, one player was headed out, except the Pittsburgh Penguins are one of a few teams to lose two NHL players.
And therein lies the problem.
After sitting through a cringe-worthy ESPN debut, the thought was inescapable. The money saved did not equal the players the Penguins lost, Brandon Tanev and Jared McCann.
Penguins GM Ron Hextall had two holes to fill before the NHL expansion draft: a bottom-six RW and a right-side defenseman. After the draft, there was inevitably going to be a third open lineup spot, but with McCann traded away and Tanev lost to expansion, there are now four open spots.
But instead of clearing one of their biggest salaries that could free adequate resources, the Penguins lost a pair of wingers with unique skillsets when Hextall traded McCann to Toronto for prospect Filip Hallander and a seventh-rounder to avoid losing him to Seattle, then actually lost winger Brandon Tanev to Seattle.
Two players out, but there’s not enough money to replace them and patch the holes.
Now, I’ve been around this game long enough not to say outright Hextall made a mistake or that he outthought himself. I’ve done that in the past only to watch a GM execute a two-rail bank shot and escape the predicament.
In the words of Billy Crystal, “he’s only mostly dead!” (Princess Bride reference. You do not happen to have six fingers on your right hand?)
Would the Pittsburgh Penguins have been better off keeping McCann and exposing both him and Tanev, thus losing only one? Filip Hallander had better be as good as some of my colleagues hope. PHN places him as the Penguins’ fourth, maybe fifth-best prospect.
Worse, the McCann replacement cost for a LW/C combo who can score 20 goals is well more than McCann’s $2.94 million salary.
Combined, perhaps the Penguins can find savings on Tanev’s $3.5 million AAV to augment the need for a middle-six winger and fourth liner, but now they need two middle-sixers and a fourth-liner. However, they cleared only $6.5 million between McCann and Tanev.
It’s too early to say if Hextall outthought himself and sacrificed too much…
Penguins Replacement Costs
What does a 25-year-old, 20-goal scorer cost on the open market? Using the rough formula of every 10 points earns $1 million, McCann’s replacement cost for 2021-22 is somewhere around $4 million. That is a $1 million expense compared to savings.
A fourth-line center with anything resembling Tanev’s energy and physicality is probably $2 million. Replacing him for less might be inconceivable. Perhaps depth forward Sam Lafferty or Anthony Angelo can fill the role on a short-term basis, but that will be a significant step down for a line that often draws the unenviable task of guarding opponent’s top lines.
That’s not a job for newbies, greenhorns, or borderline NHL players. That role is for an NHL player with high-end defensive chops, and the Penguins’ “fourth” line is one of the primary reasons they were among the league leaders in goal-differential (+40, fifth overall).
Perhaps a CMU grad with supercomputers can tell me exactly how many wins the Penguins fourth line provided, but a dynamic fourth line makes a huge difference. Ask the New York Islanders.
So, we can surmise the replacement cost for Tanev and McCann is between $5 million and $6 million, which places the Penguins “savings” somewhere near $1 million–and that’s IF Hextall finds players who fit as well.
Sure, McCann was a goose egg in the playoffs. Maybe that trend would have continued. Maybe it would not. Marian Hossa surely struggled in the playoffs for many years before he found the secret to scoring beyond Game 82.
But getting to the playoffs was easier with McCann’s versatility to play a sniping winger or responsible center.
One trade could rescue the Penguins, though their hole is deeper than it was a week ago.
It’s too early to say if Hextall outsmarted himself. But it’s not inconceivable.