With the news that Jordan Staal will be back in the lineup for Saturday's matinee with the Winnipeg Jets, Pittsburgh's salary cap savings will all but disappear, along with the leverage needed to make a splashy deadline deal.
The Wednesday demotions of Jason Williams and Colin McDonald reheated speculation that the Pens' big center would be ready for a weekend return from a knee injury, which the team confirmed Friday. Staal's return fills one of two massive vacancies at center and should finally ease the pressure on Evgeni Malkin to carry the team's offense.
“To have a guy like Jordan out for an extended period, 4-6 weeks, that’s a heck of a long time in a hockey season,” head coach Dan Bylsma said following Monday's practice.
“I’m feeling really good,” Staal said. “The last couple days it was great just to get a couple practices with the team and kind of get back into the timing and everything. Things are looking up."
Staal has been out since an early January knee-to-knee collision with New York's Mike Rupp, but has been practicing at almost full-speed lately. Saturday's return would make him the first of five currently-injured Penguins to return to action.
"I expect him to be used significantly in the game," Bylsma said. "Maybe not quite totally to the 20-minute mark, but 15-plus minutes and on the second power play. Probably not 100 percent on the penalty kill. I think he’s going to play 15-plus minutes."
Sidney Crosby, Simon Despres and Arron Asham remain shelved, while news broke this week that Tyler Kennedy will be out of the lineup 4-6 weeks with a high-ankle sprain suffered in Sunday's loss to New Jersey.
Staal's return is of no small significance. Despite missing 20 contests this season, Staal is still the team's third-most productive scorer with 15 goals in 34 games. He's got 21 points overall, a .62 PPG average that will certainly be a welcome return.
And if Staal's return assures anything, it's that the Penguins will have to move salary to gain salary before the February 27 trade deadline.
Few people understand the salary cap better than The Hockey Writers' Mike Colligan, and he helped to clear up some of the questions surrounding Staal's return and the Penguins' current ability to add salary or make a deadline deal.
To start, let's assume for simplicity's sake the Pens have exactly $0 in space when Staal comes off LTIR (CapGeek says they have 176,151 in banked space).
The Pens are no longer allowed to exceed the salary cap unless they place someone else on LTIR. If Crosby is done for the year, they put him on and have the ability to add $8.7 million worth of contracts.
Staal's return from long-term IR pulls $4 million (his annual cap hit) in savings off the books. Until Friday, the Pens had some $5 million in salary to work with. Teams can add salary up to the entirety of an LTIR player's contract at any point in the season, so long as they remain on IR.
If that player returns at any time before the end of the regular season, the savings are lost in full, and any salary added using that player's LTIR status will put the team over the cap.
This is a fine advantage for a team like Boston, who knows they can acquire every penny of the $4.007 million cap hit owed to Marc Savard this season. Savard has been shut down for the season and in doing so unequivocally, Boston has the certainty that his cap space will be available.
The Pens could guarantee themselves $8.7 million in deadline space by shutting down Crosby, but with a four-point playoff cushion and the knowledge that he might be able to return this regular season, why take the chance?
Another example, let's say Tyler Kennedy is done. They can put him on and add $2 million. But if Kennedy goes on now and is expected back—they have the temporary ability to add $2 million—but once he comes back they have to clear that money off.
They can't really add anyone at the deadline with LTIR money unless they know the LTIR money is permanently available.
The Pens have stated they'll be giving Crosby every chance to return and Kennedy is scheduled to return before the end of the regular season in mid-April. Barring another significant injury before the deadline, that takes LTIR space out of the equation.
There is money made available other than LTIR considerations, but the Penguins spend to the cap every year and have added salary throughout the season, making those funds scarce as well.
Banked space is treated differently. If you eliminate any LTIR scenarios and assume the Pens have 176,151 in space, that's prorated availability that changes on a daily basis. There are 190 cap days in the year. This is Day 129. The deadline is Day 146. Obviously you'll have more and more prorated space every day that passes.
So basically they'll have a few hundred thousand in wiggle room—which they'll need for call-ups—unless someone is done for the year.
All told, the Penguins have very little space with which to work, and any possible trade would have to be a near-equal salary swap in order to come in under the cap. General Manager Ray Shero has said in the past that the ideal deadline situation is one in which all his players are healthy and no deadline moves are required to make the team whole and productive.
While Crosby's continued absence puts an $8.7 million-sized hole in that plan, Staal's return eases the urgency some are feeling to get a very difficult deal done before the deadline.
Information for this story gathered from CapGeek.com, Penguins.NHL.com and Mike Colligan. For more Pens talk, follow James on Twitter (@Slew_James) and at the very best Penguins site run from his basement, SlewFooters.com.