Can Pittsburgh Penguins Keep a Strong Supporting Cast for Expensive Stars?

Steve Silverman@@profootballboyFeatured ColumnistJuly 3, 2013

It looked like the Pittsburgh Penguins and Kris Letang might part company.

The Penguins had offered Letang an extension to his contract that was set to run out after the 2013-14 season. Letang was not enamored with the deal and said no.

Jordan Staal had done the same thing to the Penguins last year. Back then, Ray Shero saw the handwriting on the wall and traded him to Carolina so he could play with his brother Eric Staal.

Letang does not have a hockey-playing brother in the NHL and Shero did not trade him. Instead, he came back at the stellar defenseman with another offer. This time, Letang said yes.

BREAKING NEWS: #Pens agree to terms with defenseman Kris Letang; 8-year, $58 million extension. Read more: http://t.co/Mg6LIDnoAh

— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) July 2, 2013

The deal does not impact the $64.3 million salary cap that is in place for the 2013-14 season. That's because Letang will start making the big money from the contract extension at the start of the 2014-15 season. While he will earn $7.25 million per year once the new deal kicks in, Letang will get paid $3.5 million in 2013-14.

The Penguins have a team of expensive superstars. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin lead the way, but they also have James Neal and Chris Kunitz. Paul Martin is highly paid on the blue line in addition to Letang.

Shero will find a way to keep the Penguins under the cap this year and beyond. However, you have to wonder if the Pens will be a team of superstars and minimum-salary types starting in 2014-15.

Here's why: Malkin will earn $9.5 million next season, while Crosby will be paid $8.7 million. Neal will earn $5 million, and Kunitz will be paid $3.875 million. Letang's raise kicks in that season, and Martin will also get paid $5 million.

Those six players will account for $39.325 million.

Pascal Dupuis will be a free agent Friday as will Matt Cooke. It will be interesting to see if Shero makes a significant offer to either or both players so they can stay with the Penguins. Those two players could easily cost the Penguins another $5 million.

Defensemen Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen will be free agents next year. The two of them could have a combined salary of $8 million per year, based on their salary of $6.05 million this year.

If those four also remain Penguins, that would mean 10 players would account for more than $52 million in salary commitments in 2014-15.

That does not include the goalie position. Marc-Andre Fleury is scheduled to earn $5 million in the last year of his contract, but after two successive poor playoff performances, there's a chance that he may not remain with the Penguins.

Even if the Penguins buy him out—and they have not indicated they will—he would have to be replaced by a competent goalie. That would mean spending at least $3.5 or $4 million. In that case, the offers to Dupuis, Cooke, Orpik and Niskanen might not be coming.

If they do sign those four and either keep Fleury or bring in another goalie, it will be very difficult for Shero to get his team under the cap.

The only way the Penguins could get around this problem is if the salary cap goes up considerably from the current $64.3 million.

Commissioner Gary Bettman painted a bright picture of the NHL's finances at the start of the Stanley Cup Final. That could lead to an increased cap number, but nothing is guaranteed.

The Penguins are paying their superstars and paying them well. But they may be getting themselves into financial trouble in the future, and that could hurt their on-ice performance in the years to come.

(All salary figures are courtesy of CapGeek.com unless otherwise referenced.)

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