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Molinari: Easy Way Out of Cap Trouble Might Not Be Best

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Pittsburgh Penguins, Drew O'Connor

The Pittsburgh Penguins are, at least for the moment, over the NHL’s salary-cap ceiling of $82.5 million for the coming season.

Precisely how much depends on how one configures their major-league roster for the start of the regular season, but projections of their violation run from $780,176 for a 23-man group on PuckPedia.com to $1,480,475 on CapFriendly.com for 24 players, which is one over the limit clubs are allowed to carry.

And while Ron Hextall is expected to try to address the overage by attempting to trade a defenseman or two — the Penguins currently have nine NHL-caliber ones on the payroll — there’s no guarantee he will be able to work out one that is favorable.

Or even acceptable.

After all, roughly half of the league’s 32 clubs are above the ceiling or in serious flirtation with it, so it will be a buyer’s market as teams make moves to get into compliance by the end of the preseason.

What’s more, Hextall does not figure to have significant leverage in any trade talks, considering that rival GMs can read depth charts, too, and surely realize that if Hextall doesn’t deal a defenseman, he’ll have no choice but to expose at least one to waivers, and risk the very real possibility of losing that asset for nothing.

Of the nine defensemen who figure to be in the mix for spots on the NHL roster, Ty Smith is the only one still exempt from waivers. He also is the only one with a two-way contract; the final season of his entry-level deal is worth $832,500, but just $70,000 if Smith plays in the American Hockey League.

(Smith’s salary-cap hit actually is $863,333 because of a $92,500 signing bonus that was paid in its entirety during his rookie season.)

His contract and waivers status could put Smith, acquired from New Jersey in the John Marino trade, on a fast track to Wilkes-Barre if he has a lackluster training camp.

That would make it easy for the Pittsburgh Penguins’ front office, but it also would disappoint — and probably surprise — the decision-makers there. Smith, with just two professional seasons on his resume, looks to be far from a finished product, but some in the organization believe he has top-four potential.

Promise doesn’t necessarily equate to productivity, of course, but Smith seems likely to get every opportunity to prove he can contribute to the parent club immediately.

Whether forward Drew O’Connor will be afforded the same is unclear. He is a candidate to fill a bottom-six role and is working on a one-year agreement that pays $750,000 whether he is in the NHL or the minors but, like Smith, would not have to make it through waivers to go to Wilkes-Barre.

That would be a pretty large — and obvious — tiebreaker, should O’Connor end up in a coin-toss battle with someone else for a position with the Penguins.

However, that is the only situation in which a player being exempt from waivers should be a significant factor in deciding whether to pare him from the major-league roster, because an ill-conceived roster move — whatever its intent — could have an impact on the standings.

And that could determine whether, when the regular season ends in mid-April, the Pittsburgh Penguins’ streak of consecutive playoff appearances, currently at 16, is alive.

The top three clubs in each division qualify for a berth in the postseason, as do the seventh and eighth finishers in both conferences. It would be foolhardy for the Penguins, even with what appears to be a somewhat upgraded depth chart, to assume they will be one of the eight to make it in the Eastern Conference.

They had the East’s seventh-best record in 2021-22, and none of the clubs that finished ahead of them figures to unravel this winter. And several that were behind them — Ottawa and Detroit come immediately to mind — look to be significantly better.

That’s not to suggest that the Penguins look to be in immediate peril of plummeting into draft-lottery territory. With the start of training camp little more than a week away, they figure to end up closer to the top of the Metropolitan Division than to its bottom.

However, that assumes a couple of things: 1) That their key players remain reasonably healthy, which has been a recurring issue in recent seasons, and 2) that they consistently deploy the strongest possible lineup, regardless of how much a player earns, or whether he is exempt from waivers.

Making the moves necessary to clear a roster spot for Smith and/or O’Connor, if they prove worthy of one, probably wouldn’t be easy. Hextall might be forced to trade someone he would prefer to keep, or to risk losing a capable role player on waivers.

The Penguins understand how difficult it is to win a Stanley Cup, especially after being jettisoned from the postseason in Round 1 for four years in a row. They also no doubt realize that it’s infinitely tougher — i.e., impossible — to do if you don’t qualify for the playoffs.

And every point earned, or lost, because of personnel decisions could make all the difference in whether the Pittsburgh Penguins give themselves a chance to compete for another championship next spring.

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djr5899
djr5899
15 days ago

The problem with CapFriendly and Puckpedia projections is, they have already arbitrarily put some players in the AHL that are not waiver exempt. I tend to use CapFriendly, and their current 24 man roster does not include Caggiula, Zohorna, Nylander, or Joseph. All 4 of those players need to clear waivers to be sent to the AHL. I’m not worried about Caggiula, but I think the other 3 would all get claimed if waived. I have wondered if Mark Friedman could be a candidate to get waived. Hextall brought in Rutta, who adds that size/toughness element and can also play… Read more »

Joe Cursi
Joe Cursi
14 days ago
Reply to  djr5899

Y lander would be the only one I wouldn’t try to slip through waivers. If Joseph was for real he would have already made the team. I would hope they would try to trade him first due to his pedigree.

Vince Gori
Vince Gori
15 days ago

Interesting thoughts Dave. Not sure what the best move is. Seems GMRH is worried about getting fleeced in a deal but traditionalplayer swaps don’t really clear cap room. Unfortunately the waiver wire may be the answer, at least for Dumoulin or a veteran forward. Of the nine NHL caliber defensemen, I can move on from either Dumoulin, Pettersson, or Joseph. All others can insert into the lineup (Friedman and Ruhwedel) when needed and are so friendlier options. I really want Smith to get a real chance to play. They don’t need to retard his growth, like they did early in… Read more »

Alan Smith
15 days ago
Reply to  Dave Molinari

Every player who plays for a lousy team has to have an upside due to playing every game as a loser! Hope he makes it big!

Knobman
Knobman
15 days ago

Smith and DOC are sent down. POJ makes the team to see what he has. End of story. I’m not gonna shed a tear over any of the fifteen AHL guys trying to fit into one or two open fourth line spots getting lost on waivers.

Vince Gori
Vince Gori
15 days ago
Reply to  Knobman

I already have seen what he has, another featherweight to get pushed around. No thanks

Joe Cursi
Joe Cursi
14 days ago
Reply to  Vince Gori

Amen Vincenzo!!!

Rich Filardi
Rich Filardi
15 days ago

The issue is, the best players may not play because of contracts as well potentially hindering needed professional NHL development. Not a fan, but there isnt much you can do.

Joe Cursi
Joe Cursi
14 days ago
Reply to  Rich Filardi

The difference in talent level is not that great so don’t agree!

Alan Smith
15 days ago

Isn’t every NHL team struggling with their cap space? The price they pay for anyone is the bench mark! Malkin, Letang gave back a million to help! Jarry is worth what? Every season is a crap shoot! Pens are still the best watch in the east! 32 teams try for the Cup this year and play 82 games to qualify for them! If you want to watch defenses play, go ahead! I’ll watch the best offensive franchise team year after year every time! Let’s Go Pens!

Pete
Pete
15 days ago
Reply to  Alan Smith

So then you must never have heard of Colorado, Edmonton, Toronto, Florida, Tampa, Carolina, Washington, Minnesota, St. Louis, and Calgary all teams that scored more than the Pens.
It is a fantasy to think that the Pens are still the best offense.
Lets Go Pens!!

Joe Cursi
Joe Cursi
14 days ago
Reply to  Pete

True and we need to be more structured because of our age and week bottom 6.

Alan Smith
14 days ago
Reply to  Pete

Nice try Pete! Carolina stinks on offense, Minnesota is all defense, Tampa has never had an offense, Calgary is never in it, Edmonton is overrated on offense and the Caps are an old one man slap shot team, St Louis is a goon only team as well! Toronto and Av’s are exciting to watch but the others are not!

Rich Filardi
Rich Filardi
15 days ago
Reply to  Alan Smith

I dont see them as the best offensive team, but good enough to win games. Think they made some nice additions on the blueline, but now its a log jam and contracts are the issue. You need to know what you have at the NHL level in Smith and Joseph. I have a fairly good idea Petterson is gonna be solod 4-5 defenseman with 3-4 pairing contract. Dumo is still good but I do not trust his body

Bachinga
Bachinga
14 days ago

Hextall will have this team out of the playoffs this season…and himself out of a job next Spring…thankfully,,,

This was as poorly managed of an off-season as any the Pens have ever had…in fact…every decision he has made going back to the trade deadline is horrible…

Mario sold at the high…smart man…

Last edited 14 days ago by Bachinga
LEN
LEN
14 days ago
Reply to  Bachinga

We wouldnt be having this conversation without the asanine signing of kapenin

Dean
Dean
14 days ago

Dave, I think the Pen’s current cap situation is even more complex. If they send Nylander, Poehling, and Zahorna to the AHL, there is a high percentage chance of losing them. This would also be true with Joseph and Friedman on the D. If the Pens sent Archibald, O’Conner (waiver exempt), and Smith (waiver exempt) down, they would need to send 1 more player. Remember, this is just to become cap compliant. Wouldn’t it make sense to waive one of the players that we would be ok losing for nothing? Pettersson, Zucker, McGinn. They most like would not be at… Read more »