The NHL implemented the salary cap to force choices like this. Over the summer, the Pittsburgh Penguins re-signed Kris Letang to a massive eight-year, $58 million contract, according to CapGeek.com. They also signed free-agent defenseman Rob Scuderi to a four-year, $13.5 million contract.
If the roster remains intact as it is and the Penguins don't make any moves to clear up cap space, it seems highly unlikely that they'll be able to retain the services of Brooks Orpik.
Outside of the veteran blueliner, Pittburgh has 15 other free agents—both restricted and unrestricted—that they need to deal with. That includes players of various importance, ranging from Chuck Kobasew and Chris Conner to Tomas Vokoun and Matt Niskanen.
At the beginning of the 2013-14 NHL season, Orpik seemed indispensable for the Penguins. He was viewed as a top-four staple and arguably the best stay-at-home defenseman on the team. When Pittsburgh grabbed Scuderi for less than $4 million, it was hailed as a steal because the Penguins badly needed to round out their top-four.
Bringing the ex-Pen back gave them two rock-solid pairings up top and plenty of competition for the last two roster spots. Unless you've been absorbed into Grand Theft Auto 5 since the middle of October, you know that Pittsburgh's blue line has been absolutely ravaged by injuries.
That has opened the door for Niskanen and rookie Olli Maatta to emerge as bona fide top-four defenders. Niskanen has been serving as the team's No. 1 guy on the blue line since Orpik was taken out of commission by Shawn Thornton on December 7, and the Penguins haven't missed a beat.
Dave Lozo broke down Pittsburgh's record through various degrees of injury earlier this week, and what the Pens have managed to do while missing key cogs on the back end is ridiculous. It really doesn't seem to matter who the Penguins use on the blue line, because they've all been successful in their increased roles.
Even Deryk Engelland (who will also be a UFA this summer) has pushed over the 20-minute plateau on three separate occasions this season. The Penguins still continue to pile up wins. That's a testament to two things:
1. Pittsburgh's keen ability to draft players that fit its mold and
2. The Wilkes Barre-Scranton Penguins utilizing the same defensive scheme in the AHL.
It doesn't take a youngster 15 games to figure out how to play in Pittsburgh. He can just come to the rink, go about his business and play his game without thinking about it. All of this is to say that, while Orpik is one of the more heart-and-soul guys in the locker room, the Penguins would be fine without him.
It seems like they'd be fine without anyone.
Pittsburgh isn't just playing a run-and-gun style while awaiting the return of Paul Martin, Letang, Orpik and Scuderi, either. According to NHL.com, the Penguins are the third-best penalty-killing team in the league. Only three teams are stingier when it comes to allowing shots, and Pittsburgh is third best when defending a lead after the first period.
Contemplate that for a moment. Head coach Dan Bylsma has had a healthy blue line for four periods this year, yet his team sits atop the Eastern Conference and is winning the Metropolitan Division by a wide margin.
Would the Penguins prefer to keep Orpik while returning Niskanen and Maatta to the third pairing? Sure, but sacrifices are going to have to be made somewhere. There's always the option to let Niskanen walk, but the hard fact is that he's just 27.
Orpik, on the other hand, is 33 and has been playing a rough-and-tumble style for a long time now. His expiring contract has carried a cap hit of $3.75 million. Can the Penguins afford to keep him around while giving Niskanen the raise he deserves?
Worth noting as well is the fact that Simon Despres and Philip Samuelsson are both coming off of their entry-level deals and will be in line for a raise as well.
Frankly, Pittsburgh just can't keep everyone on the blue line next year. The odd ramification of this stretch of injuries is that several of the "replacements" have played their ways into bigger roles and larger contracts.
The 2013-14 season hasn't gone according to plan for the Penguins, but that hasn't derailed their Stanley Cup aspirations one bit. They should jump at the chance to save money by promoting from within while allowing Orpik to seek his payday elsewhere.