The Pittsburgh Penguins struck a 6 year, $30 million deal with 24 year year winger James Neal this morning. Although the Penguins have known for a while that it was likely going to cost at least $5 million per season to get something done with Neal during the season, Neal officially signed makes it a reality for the team that a big salary is likely going to have to be moved, and possibly as early as this off-season.
With the signing of Neal, Pittsburgh has $59.59 committed to 11 forwards, 6 defensemen and 1 goaltender on 1-way contracts for the 2012-2013 season.
Why are the Penguins possibly in cap trouble? Because there is a strong push from small market owners to lower the salary cap to at least the $60 to $62 million range. Pierre LeBrun of ESPN reported this week that a temporary cap of $68-69 million will likely be put in place this summer until a new CBA signed but many GM’s are preparing for the cap to go down once a new CBA is agreed upon.
Assuming Sidney Crosby is fully healthy and if the cap lowers by just by a few million, Pittsburgh will be forced to move some bodies for next season.
Pittsburgh also has to start preparing for the 2013-2014 season as Sidney Crosby and Jordan Staal are eligible to sign new extensions starting July 1. The asking price for Staal is widely expected to start at $5 million per season.
Meanwhile, Kris Letang who is the most underpaid defenseman in the NHL at $3.5 million per season, is eligible to sign a new extension on July 1, 2013. He figures to see his cap hit possibly double.
Here’s a look at the top three candidates to be moved if the Penguins have to shed salary, in addition to a 2012-2013 roster breakdown:
Top-3 Candidates to be Moved
1. Paul Martin – Age 30
Cap Hit: $5 million (Signed through 2014-2015)
Clauses: No Trade Clause
GM Ray Shero has yet to send out a fax to all 29 teams informing GM’s that he is looking to move Paul Martin that almost all GM’s do when they are looking to dump a player in pretty much a “non hockey trade”.
Always subject to change and I’m sure surprising to many, there is also no indication that Shero is showing much interest in moving Martin at this point. However, his play has been so bad for such a long period of time that the Penguins have to start looking at the reality of the situation andÂ reassessing Martin’s long-term future.
Is Martin moveable when the Penguins reach the point where his salary is a major problem for their cap situation? That’s the big question. Â Those around the league believe he is moveable butÂ if scouts are trulyÂ doing theirÂ job, how can they sell a GM on bringing Martin on board right now from a playing standpoint, not to mention the contract he has. Â The best case scenario would be a team believing Martin is a change of scenery guy, which is possible. Â However, league sources speculate it would have to involve a deal that has the Penguins taking a salary back but maybe with lesser term than Martin’s three years remaining, which could interest the Penguins.
What hurts Pittsburgh’s ability to move Martin is that he has a no trade clause as it would likely take the New York Islanders out of the mix who sources contend have interest in Martin and offered the veteran blueliner a 6 year, $31.5 million deal in July 2010.
A team to keep an eye on during the summer will be the Tampa Bay Lightning who are eyeing a top-4 defenseman with term on their contract and the Lightning made a strong play for Martin in free agency less than two years ago.
Martin’s play has been so bad whereÂ a Ryan Malone – Martin swap wouldn’t be a horrible idea, despite Malone also showing signs of being on the downside of his career and also having three years left on his contract.
Next best hope for the Penguins if Martin’s play doesn’t come around and they are unable to move him, if they went that route —- the NHL implements the amnesty clause like they did for one summer following the 2004-2005 lockout.
2. Zbynek Michalek – Age 29
Cap Hit: $4 million (Signed through 2014-2015)
The sense around the league is that eventually Pittsburgh will have to move one of Martin and Michalek. Michalek like Martin has yet to live up to his contract and has not been an impact player for $4 million per season.
Michalek may never become a true impact defenseman in the Penguins system. “He’s at his best in a trapping system, ” a scout said when asked about Michalek.
Michalek doesn’t have a no trade clause but if the Penguins had to choose between one or the other, Michalek is the better bet to stay.
3. Tyler Kennedy – Age 25
Cap Hit: $2 million (Signed through 2012-2013)
2012-2013 Cap Situation
Sidney Crosby – $8.7 million
Evgeni Malkin – $8.7 million
James Neal – $5 million
Jordan Staal – $4 million
Chris Kunitz – $3.75 million
Tyler Kennedy – $2 million
Matt Cooke – $1.8 million
Pascal Dupuis – $1.5 million
Craig Adams – $675,000
Dustin Jeffrey – $575,000
Joe Vitale – $550,000
Total: $37.25 million
UFA’s: Steve Sullivan ($1.5 million), Arron Asham ($775,000), Richard Park ($550,000), Ryan Craig ($525,000), Steve MacIntyre ($600,000), Jason Williams ($600,000), Colin McDonald ($525,000)
Pittsburgh doesn’t have any key unrestricted free agents. Of the group, Sullivan is making the most money with a cap hit of $1.5 million.
RFA’s: Cal O’Reilly ($1.05 million), Eric Tangradi ($845,833)
Paul Martin – $5 million
Zbynek Michalek – $4 million
Brooks Orpik – $3.75 million
Kris Letang – $3.5 million
Deryk Engelland – $566,677
Ben Lovejoy – $525,000
Total: $17.34 million
RFA’s: Matt Niskanen ($1.75 million) Alex Picard ($600,000) Brian Strait ($861,667), Robert Bortuzzo ($535,000), Carl Sneep ($850,000) and Boris Valabik ($550,000)
The key restricted free agent for the Penguins is defenseman Matt Niskanen who is making $1.75 million this season. The coaching staff is high on Niskanen but the team doesn’t know where heÂ fits long-term with the team, which hasn’t led to any serious negotiations between the Penguins and Niskanen.
In the System: Simon Despres who the Penguins feel has the potential to be a top-4 defenseman at the next level, will be entering his second professional season in 2012-2013 and is a viable candidate to be one of the top-6 defensemen on the Penguins roster to open next season. Despres carries an $840,000 cap hit at the NHL level.
In the next year or two, Pittsburgh might have to start making room for Scott Harrington, the team’s 2011 second round pick and Joe Morrow the team’s 2011 first round pick. The Penguins like to have their blueline prospects spend at least a season in Wilkes Barre/Scranton but that can always change.
Harrington is expected to turn pro following this season and is more developed defensively at this point than Morrow who has the much higher offensive upside.
Harrington and Morrow are both signed to three year entry level contracts and their deals begin when they turn pro. Morrow has a cap hit at the NHL level of $925,000 and Harrington carries a $617,500 cap hit at the NHL level.
Marc Andre Fleury – $5 million
Total: $5 million
UFA’s: Brent Johnson ($600,000), Scott Munroe ($525,000)
Brent Johnson is extremely liked in the organization but his time appears to be running out. The soon to be 35 year old continues to show several signs that he is on the downside of his career and arguably might no longer be a viable NHL backup, which will have the Penguins in the market for a backup goaltender. Scott Munroe who has NHL experience is 10-4-3 with a 2.64 goals against average and .903 save percentage for the Wilkes Barre/Scranton Penguins.
RFA’s:Brad Thiessen ($525,000)
Early this season, things appeared to be setting up for Brad Thiessen to be the likely backup to Marc Andre Fleury for the 2012-2013 season but the Penguins might be having second thoughts about the 25 year old who’s play has gone downhill this season, posting a 20-14-2 record with a 2.84 goals against average and .885 save percentage.