Pittsburgh Penguins Beware: The Salary Cap Reaper Cometh

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Pittsburgh Penguins Beware: The Salary Cap Reaper Cometh
(Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

The 2009 hockey season is in the books. All is right in the world. 

The Penguins stand alone atop the hockey universe, as champagne continues flowing out of the Cup in Pittsburgh.

But there is a voice in the back of my head yelling, “Danger!” 

Something wicked this way comes, and it is the salary cap, hovering over Mellon Arena like the specter of the Grim Reaper with sickle raised. 

I think the offseason may turn ugly for Penguins fans, or at the very least, uncomfortable.

I would like to start with a brief thank you to Marian Hossa. Had he accepted the long-term offer from the Penguins at the end of last season, not only do I not think they would have hoisted the Cup, they’d be sitting squarely in Salary Cap Hell with no hope of parole.

I have no idea how they would have managed that situation. It would have made Mission Impossible look like child’s play.

As it is, Ray Shero has a tough task ahead of him.

The biggest challenge from a salary cap perspective is that the Penguins have two of the top young hockey talents in the world. 

Even after taking a hometown discount, Sidney Crosby is still being paid as a hockey immortal. 

Evgeni Malkin is also about to see a nice bump in his salary, as it climbs up into the $8.7 million range, putting him on par with Crosby.

It’s hard to argue with that. I'd hazard a guess that most Penguins' fans don't begrudge Geno for the raise that is coming his way.

However, after spending some time analyzing the numbers on capgeek.com, a fascinating site that lets you play around with the salary caps of all of the NHL teams, I don’t envy Shero one bit.

As it stands, the Penguins have nearly $47 million committed to 14 players on their roster for next season, with the cap expected to stay at $56.8 million. If they didn’t need 23 players on a roster and could get by with three defensemen, they’d be in splendid shape. 

Alas, I don’t think Brooks Orpik is ready to average 56 minutes of ice time a game. Slacker.

That means the Penguins have about $10 million to sign at least eight, probably nine, players. Needless to say, the ageless Billy Guerin will not be earning $4 million next season as a Penguin.

Some key Penguins who are not signed for next season are Guerin, Rob Scuderi, Ruslan Fedotenko, Philippe Boucher, Miroslav Satan, Hal Gill, Craig Adams, and backup goaltender Mathieu Garon. 

Kris Letang is a restricted free agent who may very well get an offer.

In looking at that list, things aren’t that dire. 

However, unless fan favorite Guerin is willing to take a huge pay cut down to the $2 million range, he is gone. 

I also think Scuderi’s outstanding play in the playoffs has priced “The Piece” right out of Pittsburgh.   

There are plenty of other teams looking for that special piece who can't help to have noticed that Scuderi can play some mean defense and even double as a goalie from time to time.

Shero will certainly try to re-sign him, but somebody will make a bigger offer than the Penguins can afford to match. 

The decision will ultimately rest with Scuderi, but I won’t blame him if he takes the big raise and chooses to lace up his skates in another city.

Satan and Petr Sykora will probably be relocating to finish their careers in other locations.  Fedotenko will only come back if he accepts less than his market value to return to the fold.

This is not a one-year problem, but will be an ongoing challenge for the Penguins. With 37 percent of their salary cap tied up in their top three centers, there will never be enough money left to invest in really skilled proven wingers or blue-chip defenders. 

The Penguins will likely have high roster turnover every year now that Crosby and Malkin each require their own armada of armored trucks just to deliver their paychecks to their doors.

Frankly, I think they both are absolute bargains, taking less to play for the Penguins than they could be making on other teams.

I suspect plenty of teams would offer contracts north of $10 million a year for the services of either player. If Hossa can demand more than $7 million a year, does anyone doubt that? 

The market determines a player’s true value, and frankly, Sid and Geno are being underpaid even with the eye-popping numbers they are pocketing.

Sid and Geno are the types of magical players who fill every seat in an arena. As a comparative value to what other players are being paid, these two guys are some of the best bargains in the league. 

The unfortunate side effect of having two transcendent all-universe players in a salary cap era is heavy roster turnover.

You can't have one without the other.

Do not expect Shero to even look at any of the big names hitting the market this year. He will be far too busy just trying to figure out how to fit enough low-money players under the cap to fill out a roster.

The Penguins will need to rely on veterans willing to accept under-market value contracts, or unproven young players who have not shown enough yet to warrant a high salary. 

Smart drafting will be absolutely essential, and hopefully the Penguins have found a good coach to replace Dan Bylsma in Wilkes-Barre to develop that talent.

The good news is that I think plenty of veterans will take a pay cut for the chance to play alongside Crosby and Malkin for a run at a Cup. 

Guerin will be a great test case. If he accepts less than he is worth to stay on Crosby’s right wing, that is a great sign that attracting veterans dreaming of hoisting Lord Stanley’s Cup is a viable strategy. 

Maybe Mario Lemieux will step out of the owner's box and accept the league minimum to play on Crosby's wing for a year or two. I'm guessing he can still slap it around. 

For that matter, Wayne Gretzky may be looking for a change of scenery following the Phoenix debacle. Maybe he wouldn't mind seeing if he still has game while pairing up with Geno.

Okay, back to reality. 

Targeting veterans looking for a Cup run for under market value has certainly been a decent strategy for the Red Wings, who have not been relying on the city of Detroit’s unmatched reputation as a happening town to attract top-flight talent.  

Incidentally, the Detroit Red Wings are facing many of the same problems due to the huge contracts commanded by their stable of veteran superstars. 

I don’t see how they can re-sign Hossa without wrecking their own salary cap structure. 

So, maybe the Penguins should invite Hossa back for the league minimum and give him another shot at that coveted Cup.

I expect the Soldier of Misfortune will be suiting up for his fifth team come next season—quite an accomplishment for a guy yet to turn 30.

While I think the Penguins have to be the odds-on favorite to win the Cup in 2010, Mike Babcock’s warning about the salary cap potentially getting in the way of a long run of success is not just a bunch of hot air.

If you want to follow the salary cap impacts this offseason, I hope you were paying attention back in Mrs. Smith's ninth grade algebra class, because it may all come down to some very creative and innovative math. 

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