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Rossi: Malkin, Letang deals to take up bulk of extra salary cap space

| Saturday, Dec. 14, 2013, 10:03 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' Olli Maatta plays against the Canucks Saturday, Oct. 19, 2013 at Consol Energy Center.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' Zach Sill (lf) and Brian Gibbons fight for the puck during a scrimage on Saturday, Sept. 14, 2013 at Consol Enrgy Center.
Chaz Palla
Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik looks at the blade of his stick during the Bruins game Sunday, March 17, 2013, at Consol Energy Center.

Sidney Crosby can see into his long-term future. Ray Shero saw an improving view of his short-term one at the Board of Governors meetings in Pebble Beach, Calif., last week.

There, Shero learned of projections for the 2014-15 salary cap. An increase to no less than $71 million is coming. The cap is at $64.3 million this season, and projections call for an additional $6.7 million for next season.

At first glance, this would appear to be a darling development for the Penguins, who are spending to the cap for a seventh consecutive season. The first-ever cap decrease from last season left Shero little room to build a roster plentiful with proven players.

Shero's Penguins have remained a front-pack contender for home-ice advantage in the Eastern Conference because of strong contributions from AHL call-ups in the wake of injuries. That started with Jeff Zatkoff replacing Tomas Vokoun (blood clot) as backup goalie in training camp and has continued with Jayson Megna filling in for James Neal (suspended) on the second line this week.

Still, Shero, like any general manager, would prefer more cap space to spend on role players. His best clubs — the 2008 Stanley Cup finalist, 2009 champion and 2013 conference final participant — have featured three set lines, veterans role players on the fourth, and blue lines that mostly were eight-deep with defensemen coaches could trust.

The projection for more cap space probably will not afford Shero a chance to shop for a lot during the free-agent season, though.

New contracts for center Evgeni Malkin and defenseman Kris Letang kick in for next season, adding $4.55 million to the Penguins' salary cap. Also, center Brandon Sutter is a restricted free agent and likely will command a raise on his current average salary of about $2.1 million. Defensemen Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen — players management would prefer to keep — are set to become unrestricted free agents.

Shero noted that the $71 million cap projection is “not a final number at all,” adding that only it will provide him “a certain degree of confidence ... that it will be in the general area, (given) past history.”

Shero said he and his hockey operations staff — notably assistant general manager and reputable cap guru Jason Botterill — will start looking at contract-extension possibilities for current players “over the next little bit.”

An extension is the best way to keep Orpik, the longest tenured Penguin. He took less than other clubs offered on his last contract and, at 33, should feel no obligation to do that again on what could be his final long-term deal.

If nothing else, the projection for the cap's return to a $70 million-area confirmed agents' suspicions that the NHL is skating fast toward a team salary limit in the $80 millions. When that happens — and a couple of agents predicted the 2016-17 season as the latest for a cap of at least $80 million — the work Shero did the past two summers will look even better.

He kept Crosby, Malkin and Letang — two former MVPs and scoring champions, one former Norris Trophy finalist, all three foundation players in their primes — on long deals that increased their combined cap total by less than $5 million.

Crosby was the first of these Penguins to take less than market value on his second contract. His third and likely final deal kept his cap number at $8.7 million.

A player can max out at 20 percent of the cap, so Crosby could have commanded an annual salary of about $14 million.

“I definitely wanted to make sure that me, personally, I gave myself every chance to win,” Crosby said. “That doesn't mean someone else has to do that. But if I'm 45 and I look back and say, ‘I did everything I could. ... I worked as hard as I could, took less on a contract, did everything I could to give us a chance to win,' I can live with that. That's the most important thing.”

Rob Rossi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at or via Twitter @RobRossi_Trib.

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