Zach Aston-Reese was able to flash a big smile and sign a two-year, $2 million contract Monday morning. The Pittsburgh Penguins bulky winger with offensive upside was settling in for his arbitration hearing as the offer arrived. Fellow Penguins restricted free agent Teddy Blueger eschewed arbitration and was also rewarded with a two-year deal earlier in July. And so defenseman Marcus Pettersson stands alone as the remaining unsigned RFA.
Read more about Aston-Reese’s wild day here.
PHN has been in contact with multiple sources this summer regarding the Penguins’ RFA process and progress with the individual players. There has been little to no news or discussions to report regarding Pettersson since May when the initial contacts were made. Zip. Zero. Nada.
The Penguins have made Pettersson wait while they prepared for free agency, explored salary relief trades, explored more salary relief trades, signed head coach Mike Sullivan to a four-year extension, signed speedy winger Brandon Tanev to a six-year deal, inked Teddy Blueger to a two-year deal, signed depth defensemen Zach Trotman and Chad Ruhwedel to two-year deals, and finally Aston-Reese to a two-year contract.
While Penguins fans may have perked up upon the news of Aston-Reese’s signing because a trade could follow, the Penguins do not require a trade to sign Pettersson.
First, the team can exceed the salary cap by 10% until opening night. Second, an organization may not send a player through “regular” waivers until 12 nights before opening night. Depth players like Ruhwedel, Trotman, and possibly Juuso Riikola, could be sent down then. So, the team can be over the cap but plan for those eventualities.
Let’s assume the Penguins have a 22-player roster, one short of the 23 maximum to save the cash. All salary numbers are courtesy of CapFriendly.com.
The Penguins currently have 13 forwards under NHL contract, including Aston-Reese, for a total of $50.175 million.
The Penguins currently have eight defensemen under NHL contract, not including Pettersson for a total of $26.350 million.
Matt Murray and Casey DeSmith count for $5 million. And adding some bonus money carried forward to this season, the Penguins are currently $157,000 over the cap.
How to Get Beneath the Cap without a Trade
First, the Pittsburgh Penguins can plan to send two of their depth defensemen to the AHL. Presuming Riikola has another solid training camp, he will be on the NHL roster as the seventh defenseman. Sending Trotman and Ruhwedel to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton will save $1.4 million.
From here, the Penguins have a choice: Carry only 21 players, thus having only six defensemen or 12 forwards, or save money in goal.
Penguins goalie prospect Tristan Jarry will need to clear waivers to be sent down to WBS, too. His potential as an NHL starting goalie should allow the Penguins to keep him as the backup over DeSmith, thus saving another $475,000.
(DeSmith makes $1.25 million, but if he were sent to WBS in a cost-cutting move, the Penguins could only recoup $1.05 million, which is $475,000 more than Jarry’s $675,000 salary).
By carrying Jarry and 20 skaters (7D, 13F), the Penguins total salary cap space would be pennies under $1.718 million. In the current climate, many RFAs have been forced to take less than expected market value. To compensate for lesser paychecks, teams like the Penguins have taken to dishing two-year deals.
Hockey-Graphs projected Aston-Reese at $1.2 million. Blueger projected to $900,000. Neither got their price. According to the invaluable resource Hockey-Graphs, Pettersson checks in around $1.6 million.
Could the Penguins swing a deal for $1.5 and be done with their offseason?
Sure, a trade would be the fastest route to getting cap compliant, and some are twitter-pated at the thought of trading defenseman Jack Johnson, but as PHN found last week, it’s not that simple.
Some NHL worthy players like DeSmith, Ruhwedel and Trotman may become cap casualties and play in WBS until the situation is fully sorted out, and the Pittsburgh Penguins would have almost zero buffer to handle a second short-term injury not worthy of IR, but that is the way the Penguins can sign Pettersson without a single trade.
Of course, Pettersson’s willingness to accept only $1.5 million could be a sticking point, too.