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Penguins Analysis

Penguins Salary Cap Danger Threatens Depth

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Pittsburgh Penguins GM Jim Rutherford. Video Still from Pittsburgh Sports Live. All Rights Reserved

Marcus Pettersson accepted a well below expected-value contract last Thursday and the Pittsburgh Penguins salary cap outlook changed, again. We spent the summer assuming the Penguins would clear at least $1.5 million for Pettersson, but his $874,125 cap hit allows the Penguins to use a little sleight-of-hand magic and a little sacrifice to get under the limit before the hard $81.5 million salary cap deadline.

That is the good news.

Pettersson’s generosity put the Penguins in a less onerous position, but one that still leaves them susceptible to injury and depth concerns. Most NHL teams carry 23 players. The Penguins will not be able to do so unless they make a trade.

First, we’ll make an assumption that defenseman Zach Trotman will be sent to the AHL since he is on a two-way contract. That will get the Penguins to about $81.8 million, but still over the $81.5 million limit.

The next move will get the Penguins beneath the cap but cost them depth. Chad Ruhwedel, but possibly Juuso Riikola, will hop on the bus to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, too. That move will get the Penguins under the limit but only by a hair.

After the Penguins demote Ruhwedel, they will stand at $81.13 million which will give them approximately $367,000 of cap space. They may begin the season and ice a competitive team with that number but is presents several perils.

For depth purposes, the Penguins will have only 13 forward and seven defensemen, which is one extra for each group. Penguins fans have been reminded too often, injuries can come in bunches. However, teams are reluctant to use the IR tag because a player may not play for seven days. Those nagging or minor injuries which keep a player out of the lineup for a few days generally don’t merit an IR designation.

All salary info courtesy of CapFriendly.com.

Pittsburgh Penguins Hard Math

In normal circumstances, we might see a player be put on IR so the team can attempt to replace him, but here is where the math gets even trickier. The NHL salary cap doesn’t simply omit the injured player. Instead, the NHL allows teams to exceed the salary cap by the amount of the injured player’s salary minus existing cap space.

For example, the Penguins will be (round number) $367,000 under the cap. So if Pettersson is injured, they could exceed the cap limit by $874,125 minus $367,000, which is only 507k.

Yeah, the Penguins would be in trouble because that isn’t nearly enough to call up a replacement. The Penguins will need at least 700,000 to call up Ruhwedel. Following the thread, if a pair of defensemen Penguins suffered minor injuries or illness, the Penguins would be forced to play with five defensemen until either were ready to return.

Since five of the seven Penguins defensemen make at least $3.25 million, the above is a bit of a nightmare scenario but one which still exists. Should Kris Letang or Brian Dumoulin be placed on IR as they were last February, the Penguins would have enough space to call up reinforcements.

No, the Pittsburgh Penguins do not have any waiver exempt players who could be sent down without being exposed to waivers, either.

The math is the same for the forwards, but there is more chance for the worst-case scenario. The Penguins do have five forwards who make $1.25 million or less including Dominik Kahun, Jared McCann and Teddy Blueger. If a couple forwards were to suffer injuries, the Penguins could be forced to play with 11 forwards.

The scenario extends to minor injuries, if either the blue line or the forwards suffer a pair of minor injuries, the Penguins will not have the ability to call up a replacement.

If goalie Tristan Jarry wins the backup goalie job over Casey DeSmith, the Penguins would have an additional 4-$500,000 to use, but that’s not much, either. Such a salary cap predicament does not allow wiggle room, makes finding a trading partner that much more difficult and risks grinding players in the early parts of the season. The Penguins salary cap is no longer a mess but the potential dangers loom over them. A little bit of bad luck could become a lot of bad luck.

A trade which lessens their salary cap burden isn’t necessary for the immediate, but one sure will help…whenever it happens.

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Pittsburgh Hockey Now owner, formerly 93.7 The Fan, Sportsnet Hockey Tonight. Catch Dan tweeting @theDanKingerski and the official @pghhockeynow account.

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