The preseason starts Sunday for the Pittsburgh Penguins, and the regular season is right around the corner Oct. 13.
But Ron Hextall is still in offseason mode in one fashion.
The team’s general manager is trying to find a way to get his team’s roster compliant with the NHL’s salary cap.
While the league’s cap isn’t truly enforced during the offseason, the Penguins are projected to be $1,480,175 above the ceiling of $82.5 million according to Cap Friendly.
Hextall has less than three weeks to get that figure in compliance.
“Obviously, there’s some mechanics that we’ll have to do to get under,” Hextall said. “We have good depth. We’ll see how the preseason games go. We’ve got some tough decisions to make, make no mistake.”
Perhaps the toughest of those decisions will come on the bloated blue line where at least nine NHL-caliber defensemen are under contract.
Brian Dumoulin, Mark Friedman, Kris Letang, Marcus Pettersson and Chad Ruhwedel have been supplemented with newcomers like Jeff Petry, Jan Rutta and Ty Smith. And there’s the ascension of talented prospect PO Joseph, who is no longer exempt from waivers for transactions involving Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the American Hockey League.
“I really like the mix on (defense) that we have between guys that are puck movers and skill guys and kind of defensive defenders,” Hextall said. “I really like our mix with the guys that we’ve added along with the guys that we had. We have nine NHL defensemen. They can all play. We have some tough decisions. Quite honestly, right now, we don’t know exactly where we’re going.”
One decision might involve a trade or two. But given the NHL’s somewhat stagnant revenues in recent years because of the pandemic, the salary cap has not grown a great deal. As a result, 12 of the league’s 32 teams are projected to be over the salary cap per Cap Friendly.
Penguins defenseman Marcus Pettersson is entering the third year of a five-year contract with a salary cap hit of $4,025,175.
“There’s only a few suitors in terms of wanting to take on money,” Hextall said. “It’s a tough market right now the last couple of years with basically a flat cap. It’s been challenging for all of us, for sure. You know what we went through this summer with our guys in trying to fit everybody in. It’s a tough market right now and yes, it does make it hard to make a move.”
Hextall held court with media following the second full day of training camp in Cranberry on Friday and addressed a number of subjects.
• Unlike last season, the Penguins don’t have many concerns about pending unrestricted free agents.
But there is one major component of their roster scheduled to go to market in the 2023 offseason in starting All-Star goaltender Tristan Jarry.
Hextall said he has had some initial discussions with Jarry’s representation on a potential contract extension, but he offered few details.
• Smith and forward Drew O’Connor are exempt from waivers for any assignments to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. While they have proven to be capable NHLers, the team’s salary cap concerns could leave Hextall few options than to send them to Northeast Pennsylvania to open the season.
“It’s certainly an option,” Hextall said. “But we want to put the best team on the ice on opening night that we can. So if they’re part of it, we’re going to try to find a way. You look at all your options and you start to break them down, talk it through with your staff and the coaches. Make those decisions when the time is right. But that’s a fair discussion that will be part of it.”
• Smith was acquired in July through a trade that sent defenseman John Marino to the New Jersey Devils. The Penguins’ primary motivation in that deal was to shed Marino’s salary cap hit of ($4.4 million). But Hextall long has had his eye on Smith, a first-round pick (No. 17 overall) of the Devils in 2018.
“We liked him where I was (previously the Philadelphia Flyers general manager) his draft year,” Hextall said. “All the (Penguins) scouts liked him. We talked about him, went over reports. We just felt like he was a good fit for our group. He’s a young defenseman, first and foremost. Skates very well, he’s very agile, he’s got good puck skills, a lot of deception with the puck.”
Seth Rorabaugh is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Seth by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter .