As I mentioned in Friday’s Gospel of Hockey podcast post, the lockout that significantly shortened the 2013 NHL season continues to affect the league calendar well into June.
Not only could the Stanley Cup Final go further into the summer than ever before – June 24 is the date to beat – but the NHL Draft will be much closer to the end of the season than usual. If Chicago and Boston need seven games to decide the crown, there will be only three days separating the Cup raising from the condensed one-day draft at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J.
That tight spread means the league’s general managers have spent much of the last few weeks preparing for the annual meat market, even while the 2013 champion has yet to be determined. Penguins GM Ray Shero is no exception, as he and his staff are likely preparing options for draft-time trades like the one that sent Jordan Staal to Carolina last June for fellow center Brandon Sutter and prospects.
In the NHL’s salary-cap era, and especially in the past few years, the draft has been just as fertile a breeding ground for deals as the trade deadline. It’s simply easier for GMs to make trades when they know exactly what the next season’s cap limit (and floor) will be. That type of certainly isn’t available during the regular season, since the salary cap is based on a percentage of the NHL’s total revenue in a given year.
While the Penguins have nearly $8 million to work with under the cap and 18 players under contract, it’s no secret that moving defenseman Kris Letang while he still has a year left on his current contract is a major action point for Shero as the draft approaches. Last year, the team reportedly offered Staal a take-it-or-leave-it long-term deal before getting value for the rangy pivot via trade.
The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s Rob Rossi has reported the Pens’ approach with Letang is likely to be similar. No. 58 will probably ask for $7 million-plus per year (and a no-movement clause) in his next contract, which would severely limit Pittsburgh’s future roster flexibility. Assuming Letang declines to accept less than his market value, Shero will be on the hunt in the Garden State.
Adding to the Penguins’ urgency to get something for Letang is the franchise’s lack of draft picks this year. Late-season trades for Jarome Iginla, Brenden Morrow, Douglas Murray and Jussi Jokinen cost Pittsburgh first-, second-, fifth- and seventh-round selections this year, plus three prospects and future picks.
Cheap, effective talent is critical for success in a league with a “hard” salary cap, which increases the need for winger Beau Bennett and defenseman Simon Despres to step into bigger roles next year. Both youngsters will make less than a million each in 2013-14, as they will still be under their initial entry-level contracts.
Perhaps an early-round selection from next week’s draft will play his way into a roster spot in the fall. For that type of pleasant surprise to happen, the Penguins have to make up for the selections they’ve traded away recently.
Whether Shero’s trade chattel turns out to be Letang or someone else on the current roster, the Penguins are likely looking at serious change when all 30 NHL GMs get together next weekend on the East Coast.