Penguins aren’t the only NHL team worried about salary cap
By waiting until the absolute last minute before an arbitration hearing to sign winger Zach Aston-Reese to a new two-year contract Monday morning, the Pittsburgh Penguins sent a message.
At this point, every dollar matters.
Given their lack of wiggle room under the salary cap, there was a meaningful difference for the Penguins between the $1 million salary they ended up giving Aston-Reese and the $1.25 million salary online projections had the 24-year-old winger pegged for.
Saving a few hundred grand gives the Penguins options as they decide how they will come in under the $81.5 million cap before the season opens.
If the Penguins had rounded up and thrown around a few more dollars when signing restricted free agents such as Aston-Reese, Teddy Blueger and Juuso Riikola, they would have no chance at being cap compliant without trading away a veteran player making a significant salary.
As it stands, there remains an outside chance they could waive a defenseman, go with a 22-man roster and sign their last remaining RFA, defenseman Marcus Pettersson, to a budget, one-year deal that barely slips under the cap.
It’s important for the Penguins to keep that option open because when it comes to moving an established player for cap space, it sure looks like it will be buyer’s market leaguewide as the summer rolls on.
The Penguins are one of at least 10 teams that might be pushed over the cap after signing all their remaining RFAs. The handful of teams with extra cap space could sit back and take their pick of suddenly available players over the next 10 weeks or so.
Here’s a quick look at teams who are still battling cap issues into late July.
• The Toronto Maple Leafs might be able to fit Mitch Marner’s eight-figure salary under their cap now that they’ve moved Nazem Kadri to Colorado, but they might not.
• The Tampa Bay Lightning traded away Coraopolis native J.T. Miller to make some room, but the big contract Brayden Point is about to command will stretch the limits of their cap.
• Adding Miller and suffering a cap penalty when Roberto Luongo retired left the Vancouver Canucks in a tight situation once they re-sign Brock Boeser.
• The bill is starting to come due for the talented young defense corps the Boston Bruins have assembled. Charlie McAvoy and Brandon Carlo need new contracts.
• The Winnipeg Jets look like they’ve got plenty of cap space on paper — almost $20 million — but their remaining RFAs include Patrik Laine, Kyle Connor and others.
• Likewise, the Calgary Flames have almost $10 million of space, but most of that will go to a new contract for Matthew Tkachuk.
• The Vegas Golden Knights already are over the salary cap without signing RFA Nikita Gusev, a top Russian free agent.
• After signing Artemi Panarin and Jacob Trouba, the New York Rangers’ rebuild will have to include a cap casualty or two as they re-sign Pavel Buchnevich and others. Vladislav Namestnikov is a top candidate, but Chris Kreider can’t be ruled out.
• The Washington Capitals are like the Penguins in that their RFA situation doesn’t include any big-name players, but they still might not have enough cap room to keep forward Chandler Stephenson and defenseman Christian Djoos on the roster.
Given their position on the depth chart, their salaries and their relative replaceability, defensemen Jack Johnson and Erik Gudbranson and forwards Bryan Rust and Nick Bjugstad are mentioned most often as potential Penguins cap casualties.
All four players — even the maligned Johnson — have value and easily could be moved under the right circumstances, scouts say. Being put over a barrel, having no choice but to trade away one of them in the days before the season starts, isn’t exactly the right circumstances from a Penguins perspective.
That’s why it’s important for the team to spend much of its summer pinching pennies.
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .