This article is part of our Cap Compliance series.
While the current season remains on hiatus, there is no time like the present to start looking ahead to next year. Over the next several weeks, we'll take a look at the cap situation for all 31 NHL clubs, including restricted free agents, unrestricted free agents and even potential buyouts. Then, we'll play a little armchair General Manager by providing our recommendations for how we would approach the upcoming 2020-21 campaign if we were running the club.
In our last Twitter poll, the Metropolitan Division lost out and will be our final three articles to round out the 31-team Cap Compliance series.
2020-21 Cap Situation
The Penguins currently have 10 forwards, six defensemen and zero goaltenders under contract for next season at a price tag of $68,100,175. With a flat cap of $81.5 million, this leaves the club with $13,399,825 in cap space and seven spots under the 23-man roster to fill.
Restricted Free Agents
Evan Rodrigues ($2 million) Jared McCann ($1.25 million) Anthony Angello ($833,750) Sam Lafferty ($767,500) Dominik Simon ($750,000) Juuso Riikola ($850,000) Matt Murray ($3.75 million) Tristan Jarry ($675,000)
AJ Scholz: This is a huge forward group that the Penguins will have to make decisions on, with the priority being McCann. The entire organization, from the coaching staff to the front office, loves what the center can bring to the table and his ability to stabilize its third-line center position for the first time since Nick Bonino was with the club. The five-year, $17.5 million deal Lars Eller signed back in February of 2018 figures to be a solid benchmark for McCann and would lock him up until age 29. Lafferty proved himself as a capable fourth-line option which should warrant both some additional funds and term. A two-year, $1.8 million contract would also retain the 25-year-old's RFA rights. What to do with Dominik Simon will likely depend on whether the organization opts to keep Conor Sheary. The 25-year-old Simon's finishing touch is certainly lacking but he is a player the Sidney Crosby likes having on his wing. That should be enough to keep him around for at least another year on a $1 million deal similar to Zach Aston-Reese's contract. Another player that could find himself tied to Sheary's future is his former Buffalo teammate Rodrigues. It will likely take a solid postseason campaign by the 26-year-old and even then, the fact that he is arbitration-eligible and would command at least a $2 million qualifying offer figures to price him out of Pittsburgh's market. Expect an offer to come in around $2.5 million for another two years, though it will almost certainly require additional roster moves (see below). At this point, there simply isn't a roster spot for Riikola following the emergence of John Marino and he finds himself on the outs with the coaching staff. The blueliner figures to be traded, perhaps for some draft picks or packaged into another deal that frees up some cap space.
The only clear thing heading into the offseason is the fact that the team can't afford to keep both Murray and Jarry next season and Casey DeSmith will serve as the backup to whoever takes over as the starter. Coming out of training camp last fall, Jarry was given the No. 2 job because he was cheaper than DeSmith and that could be what happens this time around again. With his name appearing twice on the Stanley Cup, Murray will no doubt command a raise from his $3.75 million AAV which will be difficult to fit under the cap. Additionally, Jarry put up the better numbers this season with a 20-12-1 record and .921 save percentage while Murray has struggled with consistency throughout his five-year NHL career. The team should be able to sign Jarry to nearly the same three-year, $11.25 million deal Murray signed back in October of 2016 and general manager Jim Rutherford will no doubt let the other 30 NHL clubs know that Murray is available.
Kyle Riley: Rodrigues is a solid bottom-six forward capable of putting up 25-plus points on an annual basis, but he simply isn't worth the $2 million he's making this year. The Penguins would likely be interested in re-signing him to a two-year deal if he's willing to take a discount, but I doubt he'll be interested in that prospect, so I see him playing elsewhere next year. McCann has played well as Pittsburgh's de facto No. 3 center behind Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, notching 14 goals and 35 points (with six coming on the power play) in 66 games this campaign, so he's definitely worth keeping around on a multi-year deal. I think he'd be well worth a four-year, $16 million contract. Angello hasn't done much of anything in the NHL at this point, having appeared in just eight top-level games in his career, but I think he's worth keeping around on his QO as a depth option down the middle. Lafferty played pretty well in a limited role this year, notching 13 points while averaging 9:37 of ice time in 50 games, so I think he's worth retaining on a two-year, $2 million deal. Simon has appeared in 135 games with the Pens over the past two campaigns, notching 15 goals and 50 points over that span, so he's definitely due for a raise. Still, his scoring leaves a lot to be desired, so he should be able to be re-signed on a two-year, $3 million contract. As AJ mentioned, there's simply no longer a spot in Pittsburgh's lineup for Riikola, so the Penguins will likely try to trade his rights, but I wouldn't be surprised if nobody bites, which would mean the 26-year-old blueliner would enter the market as a UFA.
I think some other team will be willing to overpay Murray (at least based on his recent performance), and Jarry will be able to be had at a much more reasonable rate, so I also see Pittsburgh trading the two-time Cup champion's rights to a goaltender needy club this offseason. That would mean Jarry would absolutely need to be re-signed. I think he'll get a little more than Murray got in 2016, but a three-year, $12 million deal should do the trick.
Unrestricted Free Agents
AJ Scholz: Perhaps no player's future with the organization will rely more heavily on the upcoming postseason than Sheary. This is his second go-around with the organization after being traded to Buffalo back in June of 2018 in order to give the team some cap relief. It was after his 23-goal performance in 2016-17 that Sheary signed his current deal. In the three seasons since, the winger hasn't gotten back over the 20-goal or 40-point thresholds. Combined with the depressed free-agent market, the 27-year-old may be better suited re-upping with Pittsburgh for a modest discount, especially if he can return to playing with Sidney Crosby on the top line. A two-year, $5.5 million deal should be amenable to both sides. The move to Pittsburgh was about bolstering the club's depth and giving Marleau a chance at lifting Lord Stanley's cup. While the team would probably be willing to bring him back on a veteran minimum deal, it likely will be a one and done with Pittsburgh. On the blue line, Schultz probably cost himself significant money on the open market with a disappointing 2019-20 campaign but he still is unlikely to be affordable for the cash strapped Penguins, especially with Marcus Pettersson's five-year, $20.1 million contract extension kicking in.
Kyle Riley: I think Sheary's worth keeping around as a middle-six guy that's capable of putting up 30-plus points annually, but only if he's willing to return at a discounted rate. I think a two-year, $5 million deal should get it done. Marleau was always going to be a pure rental for the Penguins, so if he has a desire to continue playing in 2020-21, it'll be elsewhere. Schultz is vastly overpaid as a bottom-pairing blueliner with a ton of health concerns, so Pittsburgh shouldn't think twice about letting him hit the open market this offseason.
Minor-League Free Agents *Who appeared in an NHL game in 2019-20
Adam Johnson ($700,000)
AJ Scholz: Thus far, Johnson has been a bit player with the Penguins, having appeared in 13 games for the club in which he notched one goal, three helpers and eight shots whle averaging 6:03 of ice time. As a result, the 26-year-old center will need to settle for a modest $750,000 offer that is two-way in nature and figures to spend much of the upcoming season in the minors.
Kyle Riley: Johnson is worth keeping around as a veteran pivot that can be brought up and log sheltered minutes in a pinch, but as AJ said, he won't be getting anything more than a cheap, two-way deal.
AJ Scholz: In order to make all the deals above work under the cap, the team is going to need to part ways with Nick Bjugstad. A trade would free up his entire $4.1 million cap hit but his contract doesn't include any signing bonus money, which means a buyout would create $3.5 million in space if the Penguins can't move him. Even if fully fit, the 27-year-old center likely would struggle to break into the lineup. In addition to freeing up money to solve the netminder problem, it would let the team keep both Evan Rodrigues and Conor Sheary if it wants to. In terms of netminding, Murray, even with his struggles, should garner a nice price tag on the open market. Pittsburgh currently has zero picks in either of the first two rounds in the 2020 NHL Draft, so that figures to be what the team is trying to get in return. A couple teams that could be in the market that would offer what the Pens are looking for would include Detroit, Edmonton or New Jersey.
Kyle Riley: With the deals I outlined above, the Penguins would enter the 2020-21 campaign a little over $1.5 million over the cap with several spots left to fill on the roster. Thus, they'll obviously have to ship someone off this offseason to open up some space. As AJ alluded to, Bjugstad is the obvious trade candidate here, as he's currently being vastly overpaid at $4.1 million per year as a center that wouldn't even crack Pittsburgh's middle six. He does, however, have two 40-plus point seasons under his belt at this stage in his career, and he only has one year remaining on his current deal, so the Pens should be able to find a trade partner without too much trouble.