The Pittsburgh Penguins made sure yet another piece of their Stanley Cup winning roster will be in tact for the 2016-17 title defense, signing Justin Schultz to a one-year, $1.4-million deal Wednesday.
Locking Schultz up to such a team-friendly deal is a great move for the Penguins, who bring back a once-highly touted rearguard who has seen his stock drop a bit. Schultz came into the league with great promise, but his deficiencies defensively couldn’t be overshadowed by his offensive skill. Still, he found a fit with the Penguins after being dealt by the Edmonton Oilers at the trade deadline, scoring one goal and eight points in 18 games with Pittsburgh before adding four helpers in 15 post-season games.
Schutlz’s signing was a tricky one for the Penguins, and it didn’t come without Schultz taking a significant haircut. He earned $3.9 million on a one-year deal in 2015-16, which was the second-straight season he earned $3.5 million-plus, but took the cut in pay to have the chance to play on a proven team and, hopefully, improve his stock before he hits the open market once again at the deal’s culmination.
However, with Schultz back, the once favorable spot the Penguins were in when it came to the salary cap has become a little less so. Getting Schultz under contract — and at such a cut-rate — is all well and good, but it may come at the expense of another roster player.
As of Wednesday, the Penguins are just a hair less than $2.76 million over the salary cap, according to CapFriendly, and it’s possible they’ll have literally zero wiggle room when the season open.
Pittsburgh currently has 14 forwards under contract, only one of whom, Scott Wilson, is able to be sent to the AHL without first clearing through waivers. Kevin Porter could also potentially be demoted, but losing his $575,000 cap hit would only make a marginal dent in the cap overage.
Bryan Rust, Tom Kuhnhackl and Conor Sheary all make in the $600-700,000 range, but each played a minor role in the Penguins’ Stanley Cup victory. There’s a strong likelihood any of the three would be quickly scooped up if they were dropped to the AHL, and risking losing one for the slight cap break wouldn’t make much sense.
On the blueline, there’s a similar issue. Kris Letang, Olli Maatta, Trevor Daley, Ian Cole and now Schultz all make $1.4 million-plus, and there are only two real options for AHL demotions among the defense: Derrick Pouliot and David Warsofsky. Pouliot, 22, was once considered a top prospect but has had an incredibly difficult time becoming an NHL regular. His waiver exemption makes him the most likely demotion, however. As for the 26-year-old Warsofsky, he, like Porter, could be lost for nothing if sent down. Like Porter, though, losing Warsofsky doesn’t do much cap-wise as he makes a scant $575,000.
Not even placing Pascal Dupuis on the LTIR can give the Penguins some much needed breathing room. As the Penguins are already in a cap overage, placing the all-but-retired Dupuis and his $3.75-million cap hit on the LTIR does nothing for Pittsburgh, according to CapFriendly. In essence, the Penguins would be able to spend to their current $75.76 million cap, but the excess money — the roughly $1 million more than the overage that Dupuis makes that would be on LTIR — wouldn’t give Pittsburgh a cap credit. Essentially, as of today, the Penguins would start the season with zero dollars in cap space.
There are creative ways to drum up more cap space by, say, sending the pair of Wilson and goaltender Matt Murray to the AHL ahead of opening day and bringing up two players with greater cap hits to the NHL. Even that doesn’t move the needle much for Pittsburgh, though. Sending down Warsofsky and Porter following the final day of training camp could also open up a little more than $1 million for the Penguins, but that’s not much room to add.
So unless there’s a move in the offing, the Penguins roster as currently assembled looks to be what the coach Mike Sullivan will have to work with all season long. It’s a strong roster — one that won a Stanley Cup — but if any holes open up during the season, Pittsburgh is going to have almost zero cap space to patch those up, at least not without saying goodbye to one of their Cup-winning players. It’s hard to even fathom what the course of action will be should a rash of minor ailments take a chunk out of the blueline or forward group.
Rutherford did well to avoid the roster blowup that’s generally been paired with a Stanley Cup victory, but keeping things in tact means the Penguins are in for a season-long dance around the salary cap, and there’s still a possibility that keeping this group together will come at the expense of a young, depth player.
Want more in-depth features and expert analysis on the game you love? Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.