In the summer of 2019, the most valuable trade commodity for an NHL franchise isn’t a 1st round pick or a young player. It’s cap space. In the midst of the NHL Draft, the NHL announced that the salary cap for 2019-20 will be $81.5M, which is below the $83M floated by Bettman himself earlier this year.
In recent weeks, the Hurricanes have been a willing recipient to take on money in deals for players that they may buy out (Patrick Marleau) or utilize to improve their team (Erik Haula). Both Toronto for Marleau and Vegas for Haula were facing serious cap crunches. Amazingly, now-President/then-GM George McPhee managed to take an expansion team in Vegas and plunge them into cap hell in just two short years, to the point that they had to dump Haula for little return. Toronto and GM Kyle Dubas appended a conditional 1st round pick on to Marleau to shed his $6.2M cap hit this year, in order to clear space for their own internal guys like Marner and Kapanen.
Which brings us to the Senators. The NHL’s most maligned franchise, due in most part to the utterly bizarre owner Eugene Melnyk, are currently sitting $11.7M below the cap floor of $60.2M with 16 players under contract. The only team lower under the floor is the Avalanche with $17.6M, but once they sign their crop of Restricted Free Agents (led by Mikko Rantanen at probably $9.5M) they’ll be crested over the floor easily.
The Penguins are currently $3.19M under the cap and have 20 players under contract. Once they sign their three RFA’s (Blueger, Aston-Reese, Pettersson) that money will all be gone, if they can actually sign all three for $3.19M or less. The composition of their roster will need to be re-balanced though — the Penguins will have 12 forwards, 9 defensemen, and 2 goalies as their 23 roster spots. Ideally, they’d want to have 13 forwards and 8 defensemen (at most).
Now once Pettersson is signed, the 9 defensemen will include Zach Trotman, who recently signed a 2 year/$1.4M two-way deal. So he can be shipped down to Wilkes-Barre Scranton. But do the Penguins really want to have 8 defensemen on one-way deals, meaning two each night will be in the press box' To refresh your memory if you’ve been busy working on your tan or cutting grass, here’s the current iteration of Penguin d-men and their cap hits, not including Trotman:
- Kris Letang — $7.25M for 3 seasons
- Justin Schultz — $5.5M for 1 season
- Brian Dumoulin — $4.1M for 4 seasons
- Erik Gudbranson — $4M for 2 seasons
- Jack Johnson — $3.25M for 4 seasons
- Jusso Riikola — $850K for 1 season
- Chad Ruhwedel — $700K for 2 seasons
- Marcus Pettersson — TBD (maybe $1.5M cap hit?)
Now let’s gaze at the Senators current configuration of defensemen:
Cody Ceci is projected to get $4.5M over a deal with some term, but this is a relatively clean and low-end cap sheet for defensemen. And even with the addition of Ceci to the mix, the Senators will only have 6 under contract. You can probably guess the general direction I’m going with this.
Now is a perfect opportunity for the Penguins to shed the albatross contract of Jack Johnson. By jettisoning Johnson and his $3.25M cap hit to the Senators, the Penguins get some wiggle room to sign their RFA’s and a modicum of space to maneuver throughout the upcoming season. It probably doesn’t move the cap needle enough to go out and bring a difference maker in during free agency, but just tying off a mistake signing and cleaning up the books for the next four years would be a huge win.
The Senators are going to be bad next year and they need to at least hit the cap floor. Presuming $4.5M for Ceci and $1.8M for Colin White, their own RFA’s will only cost them $6.3M, leaving them $5.4M of space just to hit the floor. Johnson will need a sweetener attached, as the Senators wouldn’t be doing this out of the kindness of their hearts, so the Pens would probably need to append a 2020 3rd round pick to the deal, with the Senators sending back a 5th round pick next year.
The downside to giving up a 3rd rounder next year is that it will leave the Penguins without their 2nd round pick (sent to Vegas in the 2017 expansion draft to select Fleury), 3rd round pick and their 7th round pick (sent to San Jose to select Santeri Airola in the 2019 draft). But with the franchise clearly intent on maximizing the current contention window, this should be seen by them as a necessary evil.