When given a chance to confirm the Pittsburgh Penguins blue line, general manager Ron Hextall deferred. Right-side defenseman Cody Ceci signed a four-year deal with the Edmonton Oilers at the outset of NHL free agency, and the Penguins salary cap crunch has otherwise limited their ability to go shopping on the NHL trade front.
The Penguins probably have about $871k of salary cap space, though PuckPedia shows them with 14 forwards and $121k in salary cap space. The Penguins will likely demote a forward to the AHL, possibly depth forward Sam Lafferty, and recoup that $750,000, and keep 13 forwards on the roster.
An offseason ago, the Penguins and former GM Jim Rutherford postured that depth defenseman Chad Ruhwedel could fill the third-pair role before later signing Cody Ceci to a one-year bargain deal. Pittsburgh Hockey Now gave Hextall the same chance on Thursday, but Hextall went in a different direction.
He went immediately to upgrading but also admitted it might not be possible without getting creative.
“As I’ve said (to the media) numerous times, we’ll look to upgrade at any position. If we can upgrade on defense, we’ll certainly look at it. We don’t have much wiggle room in terms of cap space, so we’d have to get creative,” Hextall said. “But I think Freedy (Mark Friedman) and Chad (Ruhwedel) are both guys that we feel can certainly playing in the league along with a guy like Juuso (Riikola) and P.O. (Joseph).”
We’re in the infancy of dealing with Hextall. When we handed him softball (intentionally) to put Friedman into the lineup, we noticed the GM first went to a desire to upgrade it but acknowledged they’d have to get creative or not do it at all.
Earlier this week, PHN confirmed the Penguins’ lack of interest in several RHD free agents, including former Penguins d-man Erik Gudbranson.
Any UFA the Penguins bring in will have to be better than Friedman, or at least Ruhwedel, both of whom are career seventh defensemen.
Actual Salary Cap Space and Upgrades?
Hextall has a bit more than just 850k to spend. Any new defenseman would likely cost the Pittsburgh Penguins Chad Ruhwedel or Mark Friedman via waivers, or the team would recoup their full salary as buried in the AHL. So, add another 750k onto the pile, and the Penguins have about $1.6 million to work with.
No, that’s not usually enough to attract a defenseman truly capable of top-four minutes, but who thought Cody Ceci was that d-man, either? Last October, the Penguins signed Ceci to a one-year “show-me” deal worth $1.25 million. Those results were pretty good, and Ceci will make $3.5 million with Edmonton for the next four years.
A couple of free agents still floating on the market could have that type of rebound in the right situation, including Sam Vatanen, who made just $2 million last season. Maybe, just maybe, the Penguins could squeeze him under the cap.
But Vatanen has every reason to resist taking even less money than he made last season, too.
Hextall also seemed to indicate they expect a step forward from a couple of defensemen. Marcus Pettersson, whose name recently popped up in NHL trade chatter, and John Marino, who had a bit of a sophomore slump.
Hextall seemed hopeful their progression could enhance the backend of the Penguins blue line–even if Marino is called upon to balance Mike Matheson on the second pair.
“You look at guys like (Pettersson) and John Marino. We think there’s there’s more there. They’re both young players,” Hextall said. “There’s more there than they gave us last year and both–talk to them (last) year–and feel like there’s more there. So we feel in some ways like there’s upside in those two players, which could really help solidify our defense.”
But that still leaves a spot.
Friedman had an electric beginning to his Penguins career. It came in a few against his former team, the Philadelphia Flyers, and it sure seemed like at least one side had an ax to grind. The Flyers roughed up Friedman, including Nolan Patrick’s blatant boarding penalty, Shayne Gostisbehere’s late cross-check for which he was suspended, and a fight with Joel Farabee.
After all that over a few games, Friedman had to be helped off the ice when he got the worst of his own attempted open-ice hit. Friedman suffered an upper-body injury, likely a concussion, and missed the next several weeks.
However, Friedman also scored a pretty goal, added an assist. He scored three points (2-1-3) in the five games he played for the Penguins and can play both sides. He’s an intriguing asset but has not yet established himself as an every-game player in the NHL at 25-years-old.
Ruhwedel is another solid defenseman in shorter bursts. It looked like he would get a shot to be an everyday blueliner. He’s played at least 41 games twice in his NHL career, both with the Penguins and within the last four seasons.
Creativity hasn’t yet been part of Hextall’s regular operating procedure with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Perhaps Hextall closes up shop and lets the offseason play out to see if someone falls to them. Or another team realizes they can’t do better than Pettersson and picks up his full salary.
Or Friedman plays for the Pittsburgh Penguins on opening night, right beside Pettersson. It sure seems like things are headed that way…unless Hextall gets creative.