PITTSBURGH (93-7 THE FAN) — While head coach Dan Bylsma evaluates his Penguins in the infancy of 2013-14 training camp, general manager Ray Shero must make his own tough decisions with the team on track to exceed the new NHL salary cap.
The League has lowered the cap from $70 million to $64.2 million, which, according to Sports Illustrated hockey writer Allan Muir, isn’t quite as tough on its teams as originally anticipated. Muir speculates the Pens are one of only six teams over the cap, going one million dollars over the ceiling.
The Penguins have until the start of the regular season, which opens for them Oct. 3, to solve the problem. He says the likely solution by Shero would be to shake up the Pens’ defensive corps. Which blue-liner could be on the move?
“Matt Niskanen ($2.3 million) looks like the odd man out with Simon Despres and Robert Bortuzzo ready to step into the lineup full-time,” Muir says. “That kind of hit won’t be easy to ship out, especially since Niskanen is a player who needs some protection in order to be effective, and unlike last year, no teams are looking for help to climb up to the cap floor. So the Pens may have to add a sweetener (or assume some of the hit) to move his deal. Veteran forward Jussi Jokinen ($2.1 million) might be easier to swap.”
Click here to read the full report by Muir.
Of the younger defensemen on the club, Despres, in the bigger picture, has looked the most NHL-ready, and Bylsma said shortly after the Pens got humbled by Boston in the Eastern Conference Final he is slated to be in his top four this season.
However, according to multiple reports, Despres has shown up to training camp badly out of shape. Josh Yohe of the Tribune-Review noted Thursday that Niskanen skated with Bortuzzo in Bylsma’s third defensive pairing, with Brooks Orpik and Paul Martin on the second, and Kris Letang and Rob Scuderi leading the pack.
Bortuzzo, 24, recently signed a two-year deal with the Pens worth $600,000 annually.
Jokinen, 30, a faceoff specialist who was brought in from Carolina at the trade deadline to help alleviate the effects of Sidney Crosby’s one-month absence, scored seven goals and 11 points during the truncated 2012-13 season. He registered a plus-3 rating after coming to Pittsburgh, and he played sporadically in the playoffs, notching three assists.
On Thursday, according to Yohe, he took the left side on a third line centered by Brandon Sutter and otherwise flanked by free agent Matt D’Agostini.
Niskanen, 26, put up 14 points in regular-season play last season, and two of his four goals were game-winners. But he appeared largely invisible in the postseason, skating with a minus-4 and just two helpers in 15 games.
As Brian Stubits reported in the CBS Sports “Eye On Hockey” blog, Niskanen is acutely aware his future could be elsewhere, especially given the return of two-time Stanley Cup champion Scuderi. But at this point, the Pens could get a respectable–and, yes, economical–return for him if he were traded.
Niskanen came to Pittsburgh as a project. Former Dallas Stars GM Joe Nieuwendyk was disappointed enough in his decline to make him a throw-in in the Feb. 2011 trade that sent All-Star sniper James Neal to the Penguins for young defenseman Alex Goligoski.
The project, on the whole, has been a success. Niskanen, were it not for the prolonged NHL labor dispute, might have rivaled career offensive highs last season. He seems to have rediscovered whatever mojo he lost in Dallas, averaging a healthy 20 minutes per regular season game in ’12-’13, and occasionally giving the Pens some good ones on special teams.
He’ll certainly be one to watch in training camp, especially once Despres gets out of the proverbial doghouse.