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Updated Penguins Salary Cap Situation for Malkin, Letang & UFA Needs



Pittsburgh Penguins, Kris Letang, Evgeni Malkin

After signing a six-year contract on Saturday night, winger Bryan Rust will stick around for a few more years. The Pittsburgh Penguins surprised a few people with the speed and deliberate negotiations. They got a discount, too.

Despite the bargain, the Penguins will spend about $1.6 million more on Rust beginning next season. Fortunately, for fans and all teams, the NHL salary cap will rise by $1 million to $82.5 million next season. That’s not insignificant considering the bloodletting we’ve seen in the last two offseasons due to the flat cap.

Now (trigger warning), the Penguins still have Jack Johnson on the books until 2026, and his cap hit will rise to just over $1.9 million for 2022-23.

So, the Penguins are playing with just about $80.5 million for next season and have just under $24 million to spend. As a financial placeholder, we will assume a top-pair RHD will cost at least $7.5 million.

Forwards: Seven Signed, $33.4 million spent

UFAs: Evgeni Malkin, Rickard Rakell, Evan Rodrigues, Brian Boyle.

RFAs: Kasperi Kapanen, Danton Heinen.

The Pittsburgh Penguins spent just over $49 million on forwards this season. They currently have seven under contract at the cost of $33.4 million. The Penguins have two RFAs, which could prove problematic because they have arbitration rights. Kasperi Kapanen and Danton Heinen are due a Qualifying Offer to keep their rights.

By some miracle, Kapanen’s 2021-22 salary ($800,000) was well below his AAV ($2.75 million). So, his QO will be only $840,000. Heinen, however, is owed a $1.1 million QO.

Kapanen’s salary makes it tempting to give a second chance, but a QO and signing are two different things. No matter how terribly Kapanen feels he performed, an arbitrator will probably award something closer to his AAV than his 840k QO.

The Penguins need five more forwards under contract, assuming that Drew O’Connor and Radim Zohorna can serve as fourth-liners or the 13th forward.

In keeping with last year’s cap formula, the Penguins have about $15 million left to spend on forwards, including a second-line center, a second-line winger, two middle-six wingers, and perhaps a fourth-liner.

Soft Predictions (Don’t hold me to them beyond this week): The Penguins will re-sign Evan Rodrigues for about $2 million. The Mike Sullivan-described “Swiss Army Knife” got lost after Evgeni Malkin returned but showed up in the playoffs. He scored 19 goals and subbed as the second-line center in Sidney Crosby’s absence in Game 6. Neither Heinen nor Kapanen will return. PHN liked Heinen’s playoff series against New York. He had a far better year than Kapanen, for whom it’s probably time to cut bait; a lottery pick wasted. Perhaps Kapanen’s rights have some value on the NHL trade market.

Heinen could again be a bargain middle-six winger in the $2 million range. He scored 33 points in 76 games, including 18 goals. At $2 million or less, Heinen is a good signing. Above that figure, he’s not hard enough to play against.

However, the Penguins need penalty killers. Fewer goals allowed can offset fewer goals scored. The difference with and without Zach Aston-Reese was stark.

The PK dropped two full points in the season’s final weeks, down to 84.4%. Against the Rangers, the PK was abysmal.

The Penguins will have $3 million to replace Kapanen and Heinen with at least one third-line winger who can score 12-15 goals and kill penalties.

The big need is the second line. The Penguins will have about $10-11 million to spend on a second-line center and Rakell, or equivalent winger. Before you start spending that money, a second-line center like Vincent Trocheck will probably command about $6 million, maybe a touch more, in this market.

Rakell made about $3.89 million AAV. Given his eye-opening performance with the Penguins, he’s in line for a raise. A team with a good center but in need of a top-six winger must look at Rakell with a great deal of curiosity. Will $4.5 million get it done? Maybe. Maybe not. He could command $5 million, or a bit more, if a team really liked what they saw.

The Penguins will have substantial money to spend on forwards, especially if they can free themselves of less desirable contracts on defense, but it won’t be enough for everyone you, or they, want.

What did Evgeni Malkin mean when he said, “Good players sign good contracts…I said I’m a rich guy but don’t deserve a $1 million contract…”

Is that $6-7 million? How about $8-9 million?

You can see the math.

Colleague Dave Molinari looked at potential Penguins trade bait, which would change the calculus, too. But don’t forget, every trade needs a partner. Not many teams are lining up to take on Jason Zucker, whose health and recent production slide are major issues with a $5.5 million cap hit.

Defense: Six Signed, $18.975 million spent.

The Pittsburgh Penguins have six defensemen under contract and P.O. Joseph waiting in the wings. They have enough bodies but are missing the top-pair defenseman. Kris Letang looks like a goner.

The Penguins spent just over $27 million on the blue line this season (counting Nathan Beaulieu), so they have money to spend. The question is–how?

Can they find a top-pair defenseman for the $7-8 million range? There aren’t many.

And no, elevating John Marino or Marcus Pettersson is probably a bad idea. Mike Matheson played good top-pair minutes, but he would need a reliable right-side partner also capable of playing against the top lines of the Metro Division.

Goalie: One signed, $3.5 million spent

Tristan Jarry is under contract for one more year. The Penguins will have their pick of a handful of backup goalies, probably in the same $1-2 million range. Perhaps Louis Domingue returns as a third goalie to continue working with Andy Chiodo. Domingue won three playoff games, but his technique was increasingly sketchy.

Casey DeSmith missed the last two playoff runs with injury. It’s fair to say the Penguins possibly win the 2021 battle with the New York Islanders if he were available and probably win the 2022 Round One battle with the Rangers. The Penguins outplayed both New York teams.

Will goalie-conscious Ron Hextall look elsewhere for a backup? Marc-Andre Fleury rumors have already popped up, and will pop up, but run the numbers. Unless Fleury wants a $2 million contract, where will the Penguins get the money without otherwise sacrificing significant needs?

It’s not realistic.


Hextall needs about $27 million to complete the blue line, barring subtracted salary from trades. That means the Penguins will have $49 million for the forwards crew. So, the Pittsburgh Penguins will have about $11 million to complete their second line after they spend about $4 million to solidify the middle-six depth.

This all translates to between $7-8 million to replace Kris Letang, or sign him. It means about $15 million to spend on five forwards, and a few nickles more than $1 million on a backup goalie.

Every dollar from one column comes to a dollar out of the other.

Hextall hasn’t missed on a player yet. Mark Friedman, Jeff Carter, Danton Heinen, Brian Boyle, Evan Rodrigues and Rikard Rakell outplayed their contracts and acquisition costs. In a few cases, those players outperformed expectations by a wide margin. Louis Domingue also outplayed his expectations.

This offseason, Hextall may be shoved into a gamble or two if the market goes loopy as it did on the last free agent frenzy when prices caught a few GMs, including Hextall, by surprise.