The hockey world is preparing for a wild ride into the summer and fall to finally see the NHL commissioner Gary Bettman hand over the Stanley Cup to the winner of a 24-team tournament, which will begin with a five-game qualifying round. And for some Pittsburgh Penguins, it will be their last chance to hoist a Stanley Cup or another Stanley Cup.
The NHL salary cap will likely be a flat $81.5 million for a few years. Both the players and owners know the score, and there isn’t much disagreement. The constraining cap will value a less expensive supporting cast and prevent teams from carrying expensive cogs whose production doesn’t equal their salary. The Penguins have about $68 million committed towards next year’s roster but haven’t signed a goalie, Jared McCann, a right-handed defenseman, or a top-six right-winger.
To those salary cap ends, for every dollar the Penguins clear, they have an extra dollar for a more talented winger or a defenseman. Or both. So, there are a handful of players who are embarking on their last Stanley Cup chase with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
5 Players Unlikely to be Pittsburgh Penguins Next Season
5. Conor Sheary
There is a chance the Penguins scoop up Sheary on a bargain-basement contract. Still, unless the small winger rekindles his scoring touch in the upcoming playoff tournament, he’ll play elsewhere or in Europe next season. Sheary’s production over the past three seasons, bookended by stops in Pittsburgh with nearly two full seasons in Buffalo, has been well below his $3 million salary.
Sheary has scored 30, 34, and 23 points, respectively, in the last three regular seasons. Sheary doesn’t hold enough value as a depth forward to grind in the corners or play hard minutes on a lower line. For Sheary, it’s top-line duty or bust, and since he signed his three-year, $9 contract, it’s been bust.
4. Justin Schultz
Like Sheary, Schultz had a breakout year in 2017 but has limped through his subsequent three-year contract. Schultz scored 51 points in 2016-17 as he picked up much of the slack left by a season-ending injury to Kris Letang. However, Schultz suffered a slump in the following season, a broken leg in the next, and a subpar season.
Schultz has played just 137 games over the past three seasons and scored a total of 54 points, despite power-play duties.
A right-handed defenseman with Schultz’s skating ability and talent will probably find a suitor, but the Penguins have rookie John Marino to fill their second pairing. The Penguins have little need to splurge on a third-pairing defenseman who may command less than his current $5.5 million salary, but more than a few million generally allocated to a bottom-pair defender.
3. Patrick Marleau
The 40-year-old forward is chasing his Stanley Cup dreams with the Penguins, after two seasons as a mentor in Toronto. Marleau had to accept a minimum salary to sign with his adopted hockey home, the San Jose Sharks this season. However, San Jose was going nowhere, and the Penguins picked up Marleau for a third-round pick, which becomes a second-rounder if the Penguins win the Cup.
The Penguins acquired Marleau for versatility, price, and leadership. At 41, Marleau doesn’t fit into the Penguins long term plans. It’s no guarantee Marleau will play next season and unlikely he and the Penguins are a good match for next season, regardless of the price.
2. Nick Bjugstad
The Penguins big centerman makes $4.1 million for one more season. Bjugstad played only 13 games this season and will be capably replaced by Jared McCann, who will be due a sharp raise next season.
With a significant salary, more is expected of Bjugstad than being a 40-point centerman who isn’t a lead penalty killer. Bjugstad scored only two points this season (1g, 1a). At 26-years-old with eight years of experience, Bjugstad has talent and value, but not much trade value. The Penguins may need to part with an asset in order to move Bjugstad, as they did when they included Sheary with Matt Hunwick in the summer of 2018.
1. Matt Murray
Probably more than any outlet, national or local, PHN has detailed the Penguins internal goalies discussions and decisions. Teams called and are watching the Penguins final decisions, which we don’t believe is yet unanimous.
Pittsburgh Hockey Now chronicled the Penguins internal decisions to ride Matt Murray in the second half of the season and big games. We’ve also detailed the preliminary trade talks surrounding Murray. There was also the Penguins fans embarrassing mocking of Murray, which roiled the team.
Murray or Jarry? The upcoming 24-team Qualifying Round and NHL playoffs could help the Penguins decisions, too. However, Murray will be a much more expensive option, and there is considerable belief that Murray will be the one on the trade block.
Murray figures to be a $5 million or even $6 million goalie. Jarry will likely cost half of that.
Despite two Stanley Cups, parades, and a big-game reputation, this could well be Murray’s last ride with the Penguins.