30 Thoughts: Cap increase won't ease Penguins' dilemma | Hockey | CBC Sports

Hockey Night in Canada30 Thoughts: Cap increase won't ease Penguins' dilemma

Posted: Sunday, May 18, 2014 | 08:18 PM

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Penguins centre Sidney Crosby makes up a trio of players who will chew up 35 per cent of Pittsburgh’s salary cap next season. (Charles LeClaire-USA Today Sports/Reuters) Penguins centre Sidney Crosby makes up a trio of players who will chew up 35 per cent of Pittsburgh’s salary cap next season. (Charles LeClaire-USA Today Sports/Reuters)

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No one's predicting Pittsburgh's extinction, but the Penguins' next GM will have his own set of numbers to worry about.
If you watched the TV show Lost (and we all agree the final season was terrible), you were familiar with the recurring numbers 4, 8, 15, 16, 23 and 42. These numbers were part of an equation predicting mankind's extinction.

No one's predicting Pittsburgh's extinction, but the Penguins' next GM will have his own set of numbers to worry about. They are 2, 3 and 16. 

What are they? The current 2014-15 cap hit rankings for Evgeni Malkin ($9.5 million US), Sidney Crosby ($8.7 million) and Kris Letang ($7.25 million). While attending Game 2 of the Montreal/Boston playoff series, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said the "rough estimate" of next year's ceiling is between $69-70 million.

Letang and Malkin's extensions -- which kick in next season -- will eat slightly more than $4 million of whatever jump there is from this year's $64.3 million limit. Those three players could combine for 35 per cent of Pittsburgh's space.

Even as the cap rose from its initial $39 million in 2005-06 to almost double that now (with some teams predicting even higher numbers), you don't see many situations with Pittsburgh's upcoming structure.

I could find four (Credit: most of the ranking information is from Capgeek.com).

2012-13 & 2013-14 Minnesota Wild

In the first of these two seasons, Zach Parise and Ryan Suter were tied for eighth overall on the cap list, while Dany Heatley was 10th (eating approximately 32 per cent of Minnesota's space). In the second, Parise and Suter were tied for ninth, while Heatley was 11th (around 35 per cent). They made the playoffs both times, winning one round. Heatley comes off the books now, and the Wild, which gave Chicago all it could handle in Round 2, needs flexibility as its talented young players get set for their second contracts.

2011 San Jose Sharks

San Jose reached the Western Conference final that season with Heatley (tied for eighth), Joe Thornton (12th) and Patrick Marleau (18th). Dan Boyle was 24th, if you want to throw him in as well. Even without Boyle, the top three took 36 per cent of the team's payroll. The Sharks aren't always a cap team, and traded Heatley after the season to get free of his number. They moved slightly away from the upper limit in the next two seasons before this year's drop put them (and 20 others) within $2 million of the top. 

2008-09 Detroit Red Wings

The cap was $56.7 million that season. Pittsburgh beat Detroit to win the Stanley Cup, a satisfying victory because Marian Hossa bolted Pennsylvania for Michigan the previous summer. Hossa and Nicklas Lidstrom were tied for seventh overall at $7.45 million, while Pavel Datsyuk was 21st at $6.7 million. The three combined for 38 per cent of the maximum cap space, but did reach the final. But Hossa departed for Chicago, where he finally celebrated not one, but two championships - so far.

2008-09 New York Rangers

Scott Gomez was at $7.36 million (ninth overall), Chris Drury $7.05 million (13th) and Henrik Lundqvist $6.875 million (tied for 16th). They took up approximately 37 per cent of available space. And, Wade Redden was tied for 23rd, at $6.5 million. Washington beat the Rangers in the first round. Gomez was traded to Montreal after the season.

The good news is none of those teams missed the playoffs. There's one trip to the final, one Conference final, one second round and two first-round defeats. The bad news is Pittsburgh proved Friday that kind of record gets its GM fired.

The Penguins are right about one thing: it is too soon for a tear down. When next season begins, Crosby will be 27, Letang and Malkin 28. That is younger than any of the trios above. Crosby and Malkin are nuclear weapons: you don't want them to fall into the wrong hands. And, even if you wanted to trade Letang, his health scare muddles the equation.

Pittsburgh doesn't have young forwards on early deals like Bryan Bickell, Brandon Saad and Andrew Shaw, who played major roles in Chicago's recent win. That's who they've got to find, and no one would be surprised if they tested James Neal's value to see what's out there.

The Penguins are like the Sharks. A deal can easily make them worse, not better. If those two really want to make change, their best trading partner might be each other.

30 Thoughts

1. Just for comparison: the 2012-13 cap was $70.2 million, similar to what we're expecting next season. Chicago won with its top-three salaried players (Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp and Jonathan Toews) taking 26 per cent. Kane and Toews can be extended this summer, with the new deals beginning in 2015-16. That percentage is going to go up, but by how much? They took almost $5 million less than Crosby/Malkin per season on their second deals, critical to their second Stanley Cup (and maybe more). Western Conference opponents are expecting to deal with them for eight additional years. "I hope [their salary number] starts with a nine," one rival exec laughed. 

2. You can debate Ray Shero's record all you want, but he won and there are plenty of guys who should have won but didn't. How many current GMs won a Cup in that position? Six. Shero had a clause giving him final say on hockey decisions. Owners Ron Burkle/Mario Lemieux and CEO David Morehouse wished to regain control. Lemieux's extensive knowledge leads to questions of whether this will be similar to the Trevor Linden/Brendan Shanahan setups. Whoever goes in there will want to know, "How much authority do I have?"

3. That's why agent Pat Brisson makes sense, since he has a good relationship with the organization, representing both Crosby and Malkin. But, he has some big deals coming up, including the Kane and Toews extensions. Morehouse said interim GM Jason Botterill is a candidate, although it's not usually positive for internal hires when there's a search instead of immediate promotion. The biggest question about Botterill is how much his philosophy differs from Shero's. On the surface, it doesn't make sense to chase a good candidate in a similar position somewhere else (for example, Julien BriseBois in Tampa Bay) if Botterill is a legit possibility.

4. So, why was Dan Bylsma kept? Here are a couple of theories: First, the Penguins didn't want Bylsma and Shero going somewhere together. Second, asking the new GM to make the choice shields the current players, especially Crosby and Malkin. That makes sense, since the moment they were eliminated, reports of strife between the coach and roster, especially the two superstars, overwhelmed North American bandwidth. The downside? GMs only get so many coaching changes (or, in Shero's case, coaching battles) before the bazooka turns on them. Whoever steps into Vancouver will appreciate Linden making the change. 

5. I'm a big Crosby watcher. Love his game and enjoy watching the Penguins. Whatever was/is going on, the word to describe his play this playoff was...weird. The Corsi/Fenwick numbers are great, but this is one case where I support the eye test. He simply was not himself. What really stood out -- especially late in the regular season and against Columbus -- was how he'd take a faceoff, then not engage the opposing centre. It led to a Ranger goal in Game 1 of that series. 

6. Crosby also seemed to carry/hold the puck a lot less than normal, especially on the power play. There is at least one team putting high value on "primary points," which eliminates second assists from scoring totals. He tied for the NHL lead with 70 in 80 games during the regular season, one of the reasons he will be MVP. He had four in 13 playoff games.  

7. Is it simply minutes played? This year, between the regular season, playoffs and Olympics, he played 2133:35. The previous three years, his total was 2511:38. Of the top 48 skaters in ice time during 2013-14's 82-game schedule, there was Crosby and 47 defencemen. He must, however, learn how to handle obvious frustration. Ryan Getzlaf put his anger at Antoine Roussel behind him to help eliminate Dallas. Drew Doughty looks like he's constantly annoyed, but doesn't let it affect his great play.

8. Sounds like Edmonton's Scott Howson was in Vancouver for an interview. He didn't respond to a call, email or text seeking comment. That is The Triple Crown of avoidance. 

9. Vancouver fans wondered if the Pittsburgh opening would affect Jim Benning's candidacy. He's had two interviews. If they aren't negotiating with him now, the view is askew.

10. Boston's Peter Chiarelli might be getting lonely. It would be no surprise if he lost Benning and several sources indicate another valuable member of his staff, Don Sweeney, interviewed in Washington. (Chiarelli declined to comment). 

11. Didn't expect to hear much about the Capitals until after the NBA Wizards were eliminated, which happened late last week to Indiana. There were a lot of conflicting rumours about their openings, but Sweeney was interviewed and it sounds like Nashville's Paul Fenton was too. (Glenn Healy reported last week Fenton also met with the Canucks). Of course, Shero's availability alters everything. If he'd stayed in Pittsburgh and Bylsma was out, the belief was Shero would chase Barry Trotz, since they worked together in Nashville. It sure makes sense for Washington, but as I write this, there is no evidence it is close to reality.

12. The toughest part of this search is determining where things stand with Wayne Gretzky. There definitely were conversations, but it's hard to pin down what's happening. One of the considerations for Washington is who would run the organization with him. CSN Washington's Chuck Gormley mentioned Sportsnet's Doug MacLean, and it makes sense. Again, though, it's tough to know for sure.

13. In the last 30 Thoughts, it was mentioned that there likely will be a debate at the Stanley Cup GM meetings about the possibility of compensation for losing a hockey employee to another team. It sounds like the proposal will be a second-round selection, with the team doing the hiring having a window of several seasons to give up the pick. It's also possible there may some kind of age/experience limit, so veteran coaches/execs would be able to leave freely, as long as the new position is a promotion.

14. Another exec, asked if he thought Jeff Skinner was available, said this about Carolina's Ron Francis: "He saw first-hand what trading an important young player can do to an organization, so he'll be careful." Hartford was never the same after it dealt the Hall of Famer to Pittsburgh in 1991.

15. Asked about that, Francis downplayed it. Afterwards, I realized he's probably thinking, "If I say yes, I'll sound like an egomaniac." He kept things close to the vest during our conversation and it's understandable, as there are some massive decisions to make. When I enquired about Eric Staal's future, the GM replied, "It depends on our budget." He could say that about a few players. Those numbers should be known in the next week or so.

16. Before we go crazy with Staal rumours, Francis added he liked seeing the captain as a left winger because it makes it easier to double-shift him around the lineup. This was one of the most interesting parts of the conversation. Asked what he's looking forward to hearing from coaching candidates, the first thing he said was, "Line pairings." He wants to hear how the interviewees would structure the roster, particularly the forward lines. "It's more about finding good pairs," he said. That way you can be flexible with the third man.

17. Florida's Dale Tallon is returning from the world championships in Minsk, Belarus, so expect that coaching search to heat up this week.

18. Minnesota's Chuck Fletcher said the Wild will meet with Mike Yeo about extending his expiring contract, but there's another situation to watch -- Anaheim. Bruce Boudreau is heading into the final season of his contract, and his assistants are up next month.

19. Watching 20-year-old John Gibson have his roughest night as a pro in Game 7 against the Kings reminded me of 21-year-old Chris Osgood's giveaway that led to San Jose's monumental upset of Detroit in 1994. "I remember being devastated, disappointed," Osgood said Sunday. "It was a great opportunity as a young goalie. You think you can win the Stanley Cup at a young age like Patrick Roy and Grant Fuhr. I grew up idolizing those guys...You lose Game 7 as a heavy favourite on a deciding goal where you made the mistake." 

20. But Osgood, who was very tough mentally, moved past it. "The next day I said, 'I can do this, if this is the worst that happens it's not that bad...If I can get over this, I can handle anything.' When you're 21, you think you can handle everything, but you need people you can talk to. Ken Holland was really good at putting things in perspective...he steered me in the right direction. He told me I wasn't supposed to be here, don't let one mistake define who you are going to be."

21. Osgood added his situation is similar to Gibson's because both had young teammates who were excited to be in the NHL despite the loss. "He didn't look any different to me than he did in other games," he said. "Sometimes it just happens at the worst possible time. I loved [Gibson] when scouting him. He makes it look easy, that's how you know he is good...Use [bad games] to get better."

22. Finally, the three-time Stanley Cup champion told a great story about Scotty Bowman. In the fifth game of the 1993-94 season, Osgood was yanked as the Red Wings lost 6-3 in Toronto.  "Doug Gilmour scored on a double-spinorama to make it 4-0 or 5-0. Bowman said, 'Don't worry kid, you're going to be here for a long time.' Even after that I thought I could play in this league."

23. Mike Babcock on Hockey Night in Canada Radio about his future: "When you've been in a place nine years like I have, going into my 10th year, it becomes a mutual thing. You want to be someplace where they want you. If they don't want you, you move on. I'm going to coach in the league for a long time yet, there's going to be opportunities for me. I like what we've done in Detroit; we've rebuilt on the fly...I think we have a chance to be better next year and better in the future. So, I tell people all the time: I've got a good place to hunt, I've got a good place to water ski, my family's happy, my youngest girl is finishing school next year so I'm free that way. But there's no reason to move if you don't have to move or if it doesn't excite you to. I've always been a believer that the grass is greener right here at home as long as you fertilize and water."

24. Don't think Marian Gaborik is going to hit free agency. During their 2012 Cup run, the Kings quietly did an extension with Jarret Stoll, but waited until it was over to announce. Could see something similar here.

25. Logan Couture got my #NHL15 cover vote with a tough interview on HNIC Radio after the loss to Los Angeles. "It doesn't get any easier," he said, one week later. "It's been impossible to watch any more hockey since we lost." Asked if he'd re-watched any of the Kings' series to see what happened, he replied, "No, and I don't think I'll be able to. It's just too raw right now, and I think even in the future, any time you lose, especially the way that we lost, it brings up the emotions again and those aren't the emotions you like to feel."

26. Brendan Shanahan made the newspaper media rounds last week and we saw a window into his philosophy. When it was suggested the captaincy be moved away from Dion Phaneuf, Shanahan scoffed. What that says is he is going to protect the players in public. I think there's a legitimate argument to be made that it might actually help Phaneuf, but, in Toronto, it is extremely hard to sell such moves as a positive. So Shanahan's not going to allow that. 

27. When it comes to the Phaneuf rumours, I believe one of the reasons Toronto signed him (aside from the fact he still plays the hardest minutes) was that it improved his trade value at some point. Trading a player with term, even if you have to eat a bit of salary, is easier than trading an unrestricted free agent. They're probably testing his value as much as anything. One exec made a good point, though: Toronto should be careful dealing a useful player who clearly doesn't mind an intense market.

28. On the Milan Lucic/Dale Wise exchange after Montreal eliminated Boston: Fans and media love the handshake line after a playoff series. I've been surprised at how many players privately say they hate it, especially if they are the loser. Maybe the only stunner is that it doesn't happen more often.

29. One scout said it best about seeing Lucic so irate: "Montreal should take that as the ultimate compliment. Usually he's the one getting other teams off their game. Instead, they got to him."

30. There will be a discussion about giving a player a penalty who dives for the puck and trips an opponent - whether or not he got the puck first. Right now, puck first equals no penalty. That may change in the search for more goals. 

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