CRANBERRY — Ron Hextall knows that he has to pare roughly $1.5 million from the Pittsburgh Penguins’ payroll to get under the NHL’s salary-cap ceiling.
He also knows there are a couple of ways to accomplish that.
He could work out a trade or two, perhaps for one of the nine NHL-caliber defensemen currently on the training-camp roster.
But there’s a catch.
Or he could assign Ty Smith and Drew O’Connor to the Penguins’ farm team in Wilkes-Barre, since neither would have to clear waivers and dropping their combined salaries would leave the Penguins below the $82.5 million ceiling for 2022-23.
Except that’s not necessarily as simple as it might sound, either.
Which explains why, when discussing the Pittsburgh Penguins’ cap situation with reporters Friday, Hextall acknowledged that “we’ve got some tough decisions to make.”
Of course, he could shed salary by making one or more trades, although that’s not as simple as it might sound.
Depending on how one projects rosters, approximately half of the NHL’s 32 teams are either above the cap ceiling or within $1 million of it. That means a lot of clubs will be looking to move players in the next few weeks, and the buyer’s market that creates all but eliminates any leverage for teams hoping to move personnel.
“There are a lot of teams over (the cap),” Hextall said. “I guess some teams, you kind of wonder what they’re going to do. We’re obviously in that situation. … There are only a few suitors, in terms of wanting to take on money, so it’s a tough market.”
Deciding which defenseman to part with, whether by a trade or demotion to the American Hockey League, might not be an easy call, either
“I really like the mix on (defense) that we have, between guys who are puck-movers and skilled guys and kind of defensive defenders,” Hextall said. “Right now, we don’t know exactly where we’re going. Obviously, we have some ideas, but some tough decisions for us.”
Another difficult one could be deciding what to do with O’Connor and/or Smith if either has a strong performance in camp and effectively forces management to keep him on the major-league roster.
Hextall allowed that “it’s certainly an option” to demote those two, but quickly added that, “we want to put the best team on the ice Opening Night that we can, so if they’re part of it, we’re going to try to find a way (to keep them).”
Precisely which forwards and defensemen will be in uniform Oct. 13 against Arizona hasn’t been settled yet, but barring injury, Tristan Jarry and Casey DeSmith are locks to form their goaltending tandem.
Hextall confirmed that he has had cursory contract talks with Jarry, whose cap hit is $3.5 million and who is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent next July, but suggests neither party is pushing to reach an agreement soon.
“There’s no real urgency there, from either side, but we’ll continue talking and get something done,” Hextall said. “I don’t anticipate talking when the season starts, but who knows?”
Jarry rebounded from a late-series meltdown against the New York Islanders during Round 1 of the 2021 playoffs with a strong regular-season performance, but missed all but the Game 1 of their opening-round series against the New York Rangers this spring because of a foot injury.
The Rangers’ victory stretched the Pittsburgh Penguins’ franchise-worst streak of playoff losses to five series, but that didn’t deter Hextall from keeping their veteran core intact by re-signing Kris Letang, Evgeni Malkin, Bryan Rust and Rickard Rakell when they were free agents this summer.
“Every year is a new year,” Hextall said. “OK, we lost the last two years in the playoffs, since I’ve been here. We felt like we certainly could have won both series, but I think that’s what gives you the hope that it’s still there.
“These guys are still very good players. … We felt like this group could still go on a run and do a lot of damage. … I’m really excited about where we are right now, as a team.
“It’s hard to win in this league. It’s hard to win a round in the playoffs. It’s certainly hard to win the Stanley Cup. But that’s our mission.”
After they settle on how to get into compliance with the salary cap, anyway.