This offseason was never going to be an easy one for the Pittsburgh Penguins. Had they won the Stanley Cup or even appeared in the Final, then perhaps struggling against the cap while trying to retain players like Matt Niskanen wouldn't be so hard to watch.
That's part of doing business when you win the Cup, after all. Everyone wants your players.
It's what made Dave Bolland attractive to the Toronto Maple Leads and why the New York Rangers pursued Brad Richards so heavily. Cup rings speak volumes in the locker room and can change the complexion of a franchise.
That isn't the case in Pittsburgh this summer.
Instead of trying to figure out how to keep a winning core together, the Penguins have been forced to figure out which piece of the puzzle is preventing the rest of the picture from falling into place.
Everyone knows the cap situation is tight in Steel City. That's what happens when you boast two of the best offensive players in the world.
The time has come for the Penguins to recognize that the current team structure isn't working, and the best way to address that would be by trading away one of the six $5-plus million contracts that are currently preventing any real changes from happening.
The drafting hasn't been good enough in Pittsburgh to support Sidney Crosby's $8.7 million cap hit and Evgeni Malkin's $9.5 million cut.
Having youngsters on entry-level deals making an impact is an absolute must when a franchise decides to build around a few massive contracts, and Pittsburgh just doesn't have the farm system to complement Nos. 87 and 71.
It takes time to build a strong system, so the other option for new general manager Jim Rutherford is trading away an albatross contract to make room for more depth up front while adding some youth at the AHL level.
Depth is something that the Penguins have struggled with since trading Jordan Staal, and the days of being able to roll four strong lines seem like a distant memory for this franchise.
Crosby and Malkin aren't going anywhere. If the Ottawa Senators aren't going to be able to milk fair value out of Jason Spezza, like GM Bryan Murray suggested to reporters, then there isn't an asset package on earth worth either of these two players.
That's a gift and a curse for the Penguins, but that's just the way it will be for the next decade. They might as well adjust and get used to it by trading either Kris Letang, James Neal or Marc-Andre Fleury.
For the sake of this examination, we're going to remove Fleury from the conversation because the Penguins would need a good netminder to come back in any deal for "Flower." That would prevent them from adding any forward depth, and that's the whole point of moving on one of these deals.
Letang is due to make $7.25 million a year until 2022. You can buy a lot of quality at forward for that kind of dough.
Consider that Chris Kunitz makes $3.85 million while Pascal Dupuis takes $3.75 million home each season. By themselves they aren't scary, but adding two similarly talented players in lieu of Letang makes a lot of sense.
The Penguins will have around $16 million to spend this summer. Depending on how much salary they take back in our proposed trade of Letang, Pittsburgh could be looking at $17-20 million in spendable space.
Niskanen and Jussi Jokinen could eat into that, but the Penguins would still have some flexibility to bring in some help for the bottom six, and that's the key word here: flexibility.
Until Pittsburgh puts four valid lines on the ice, winning a playoff series against the Boston Bruins or even the New York Rangers doesn't seem like a realistic goal.
What if Rutherford was able to add a few bodies like Olli Jokinen and Brian Gionta, though? We're basically pulling names out of a hat here, but adding two guys along those lines would go a long way toward making the Penguins a more effective team come playoff time.
There's no way to control injuries, but consider how the big picture could look by October: A new head coach will be in place, the team could have some ability to work under the cap by moving a guy like Letang and one or two free-agent forwards could put the squad back onto the short list of legit Cup contenders.
We already know what this Penguins team can do as is.
It hasn't been good enough, and that's why heads rolled following a second-round playoff exit. This is a franchise that badly needs to shake things up, and it could effectively do so by moving out a single high-dollar body to make room for two or three guys that can contribute on the second and third lines.
The L.A. Kings aren't Stanley Cup champions because of their first line. They downed the Rangers because they had Mike Richards centering the fourth line and Jeff Carter, Tanner Pearson and Tyler Toffoli sniping away from the second or third unit—depending on the matchups.
Pittsburgh's third line against the Rangers was Joe Vitale, Beau Bennett and Lee Stempniak. That's the gap that the Penguins need to bridge if they want to win the Cup.
Letang and Neal are both excellent hockey players, and they'll thrive no matter where they end up. It's just evident at this juncture that the Penguins are far too one-dimensional to compete with the big dogs in the East, let alone the West.
If the franchise is sincere in its desire to change, then this is the way to do it. Move one of the big contracts and bring in guys that can help balance out the scoring.
All salary-cap information appears courtesy of CapGeek.com. Follow Franklin Steele for more hockey musings or to agree with everything he wrote above.
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