Matt Paul: With the recent re-signing of defenseman Robert Bortuzzo to a two-year, $1.2 million contract, the Penguins now sit
above the salary cap and are in a less-than-envious position.

But that’s the price a star-studded team must pay, and its now time for general manager Ray Shero and his assistant (and cap guru), Jason Botterill, to get to work. Before we get into the speculation of who might go, let’s take a look at who is under contract.

The following is a snapshot of the lineup and salaries. It focuses less on where players will play and more on who appears to be on the NHL squad.

Chris Kunitz ($3.725m) | Evgeni Malkin ($8.700m) | James Neal ($5.000m)
Beau Bennett ($0.900m) | Sidney Crosby ($8.700m) | Pascal Dupuis ($3.750m)
Jussi Jokinen ($2.100m) | Brandon Sutter ($2.067m) | Matt D’Agostini ($0.550m)
Tanner Glass ($1.100m) | Joe Vitale ($0.550m) | Craig Adams ($0.700m)
Dustin Jeffrey ($0.625m)

Paul Martin ($5.000m) | Brooks Orpik ($3.750m)
Kris Letang ($3.500m) | Rob Scuderi ($3.375m)
Matt Niskanen ($2.300m)| Simon Despres ($0.840m)
Deryk Engelland ($0.567m) | Robert Bortuzzo ($0.600m)

Marc-Andre Fleury ($5.000m)
Tomas Vokoun ($2.000m)

That’s a full 23-player roster with a requirement to shed at least $1.09 million, though more would be preferable to accommodate injury call-ups and trade deadline acquisitions (albeit minimal, at best).

Josh, where do you see some fat that needs trimming?

Joshua Neal: That’s a tough question, Matt, but it’s certainly one that Ray Shero and the Penguins will have to address before September when they’ll need to be cap compliant.

The first thing I’ll do is say that I defend each move that Ray Shero made to get the Penguins above the cap. Scuderi came cheaper than I expected, and he will prove a great partner for the new long-term investment Kris Letang. Pascal Dupuis needed to be re-signed with the opportunity cost being Matt Cooke. But the Matt D’Agostini signing lessens that blow a bit, and at a $550K bargain. Lastly, I think Bortuzzo would have been awarded significantly more than $600K had he reached his arbitration.

If we’re talking about “trimming fat,” the only name on that roster that I think isn’t going to contribute is Deryk Engelland. Bortuzzo’s presence and Despres’ ability to play everyday have essentially transformed Engelland into an obsolete “tough guy” who doesn’t bring much to the table. Unfortunately, his $567K cat hit won’t put the Penguins into compliance by being the only cap casualty.

I think that rather than “trimming fat,” the Penguins may be forced to cut a little closer to the bone in moving someone with a bigger salary, even if from a roster standpoint they currently make sense. Could guys like Niskanen or Jokinen be in danger simply because of the number of zeros in their paycheck?

Matt: I don’t think there’s any doubt that some players with “bigger” salaries are in danger of finding a new home in the coming weeks. Niskanen has wheels, which tend to be a valuable commodity in present day NHL defenseman. And while he’s no Kris Letang, his offensive abilities are strong enough that he could be a viable second defenseman on a team lacking power play depth. At his salary, he provides a lot of bang for the buck — but he’s a luxury the Penguins might not be able to afford.

I’m less sold on the idea of trading Jokinen, who I believe offers too much to the team to be considered expendable. For starters, he proved more than capable of filling in for one of the Penguins’ injured centers when Crosby missed extended time recovering from a broken jaw. He’s a shootout ace, which won’t help come playoffs, but could help the team earn a few extra points — which could be a big difference in the standings. He also wins a ton of faceoffs, kills penalties, and can play up and down the lineup.

Another possible trade candidate is Tanner Glass, whose $1.1 million is $400,000 more than the next fourth liner despite providing equal or less production. If paired with an Engelland departure, Shero would clear $1.667 million, leaving Shero $568,333 in available cap space. It’s not as cushy as what might become available if Niskanen and/or Jokinen got traded, but it’s enough to create some space until other moves are made — and it removes two of the less useful players from the roster.
Do you have any thoughts on a larger scale move, such as one that would include Orpik and/or Neal? Rumors swirled about both early this summer…

Josh: I had heard some similar things from various outlets about the possibility of Orpik or Neal being moved. I didn’t really give them much time, though. The only benefit to moving either player would be dumping salary – and even then that’s a bit of a stretch. Even with their salaries where they are at (Orpik at $3.75mil/year and Neal at $5mil/year) they are bargains for their price. Sure, Orpik is not getting any younger, but he and Paul Martin were a revelation as a shutdown pair this past year.

You may be able to get a ransom for a guy like Neal in a trade, and Orpik is still a capable defensive defenseman in a league that is watching them “die out,” but Brooks was one of the first long-term deals Shero inked, and he provides so many intangibles and leadership to the team that I can’t see him going anywhere, especially in the twilight of his career. Neal is a 40-goal scorer and an all-pro who would see that production decline in another city, because Evgeni Malkin would no longer be feeding him the puck.

If Shero has to go through a lean deadline because he plays it close to the vest on the cap this year, I’d certainly prefer that as opposed to cutting production now in anticipation of a move at a later date.

Matt: I didn’t and still don’t put stock into Neal and Orpik rumors. Shero is building a team to compete for championships and that becomes increasingly difficult when top-end players are traded for cap reasons. The only way trading either would make any sense would be to get a younger, cheaper alternative with a similar talent level and productivity. And what GM in the NHL would make such a trade? None.

As for the trade deadline, I’ve heard some talk that Shero has to leave space for the deadline. So some fans would rather Shero trade a good, talented player or two who can spend an entire season building chemistry with teammates for the simple reason of making the trade deadline more entertaining. Sorry, that’s downright idiotic. The reality is, the Penguins lost chemistry and slowed down with their deadline acquisitions last season, which may or may not have played into their performance. Any final thoughts on the topic?
Josh: I couldn’t agree more, Matt. We left last season with a sour taste in our mouth because of the way the Penguins went out. “It didn’t work.” or “They didn’t win.” were common things I heard from other fans. But at the end of the day, the Penguins made it to the Eastern Conference Final, and all we seemed to do was take it for granted. If you’d have told me in the dark ages of the early 2000’s that the Penguins would be sniffing at a chance like this I’d have had you recommended to a psychologist.

I think that the moves Shero had to make were already made. Sure, I’d have liked to have kept Matt Cooke, but this roster is going to be a very similar roster to the players that did the heavy lifting to get the Penguins to the ECF last year, and to say that this current roster will pale in comparison to last year’s is misguided. And with core guys like Letang and Malkin locked up for a very long time (over which the cap is projected to rise) the Penguins’ window could be bigger than we had initially thought.