Salary cap concerns led to changes for Penguins, GM Ron Hextall says


Ron Hextall didn’t necessarily have a strong desire to part ways with forwards Jared McCann and Brandon Tanev.

At the same time, he had to ensure his team was compliant with the NHL’s salary cap of $81.5 million.

That’s why McCann and Tanev are now members of the Seattle Kraken.

“We felt like we were (projected to be $3 million to 3.5 million) over the cap,” the Penguins general manager said via video conference on Thursday. “The two moves obviously allowed us to get where we felt comfortable that we can be under the cap. Prior to these moves, it was going to be difficult.

“In saying that, if we could move things around a little bit, manipulate some money and be a better team, we’ll look at it. I’m not real eager to regain salary, certainly if we don’t have to.”

On Saturday, the Penguins dealt McCann and his salary cap hit of $2.94 million to the Toronto Maple Leafs in exchange for forward prospect Filip Hallander and a seventh-round draft pick in 2023. By Wednesday, McCann and Tanev — who carries a salary cap hit of $3.5 million — were each selected by the Kraken in the expansion draft.

“We set a price for Jared, where we would move him if we got the right price,” Hextall said. “And Toronto met that price. So we moved ahead with that deal. Part of it was knowing that we would probably lose another player and give us an opportunity to become cap-compliant when we need to at the start of the season. Very hard decisions to make obviously. But in the end, we have tough decisions and we had to do what we felt was best for the organization, short term and long term.”

Part of the short-term concerns were related to the status of injured center Evgeni Malkin and the team’s depth at the position. With Malkin expected to miss some portion of the 2021-22 season as he recuperates from offseason surgery to his right knee, the Penguins opted to protect Teddy Blueger and Jeff Carter in the expansion draft over the likes of McCann, Tanev and others.

“It definitely had an impact,” Hextall said. “There’s still some uncertainly with the beginning of the (2021-22 season). When we looked at our center position, it’s the position that we lacked the most depth up front. So we felt it was important to protect that position and therefore, it had an impact on our (expansion protection) list for sure. You look at a lot of things. You look at a player’s age, you look at the contract, you look at the term of the contract, the (average annual value), the fit on our team, the depth in your organization.

“There was a lot that went into our final decision there but there’s no question that (Malkin) impacted our thought process for sure.”

Currently, the Penguins have $7,446,795 of salary cap space according to Cap Friendly. That figure does not account for potential new contracts for pending restricted free agents such as forwards Zach Aston-Reese or Radim Zohorna.

With a long-stated goal of adding some toughness and an unstated pursuit of improving depth in goal, that doesn’t leave a lot of room for potentially adding any big names once the free agent signing period opens July 28. All of that could potentially change with this weekend’s entry draft, an event where many trades, big and small, are orchestrated.

But as things stand at this moment, the Penguins don’t expect to add any major pieces via free agency.

“We can visit the free agent market, but I don’t suspect there’s going to be a top player there that we can fit under the cap,” Hextall said. “You never know what happens, I guess, between now and then. But, we’re going to do everything we can just to put the best team on the ice, whether it’s internal or bringing a player from the outside. Really hard to say what the market is going to be. And I suspect there will be players in August that aren’t signed. We’ll just evaluate things on a day-to-day basis as we move along. If a free agent makes sense, we’ll move on it.”

Notes:

Hextall said Malkin is “doing well” in his recovery. He added that potential contract extensions for Malkin and defenseman Kris Letang — each entering the final year of his current contract — are not a leading priority at the moment.

“We’ve kind of put it a little bit on the backburner,” Hextall said. “Once we get through the draft and free agency, we’ll get more on it. But at this point, we’ve more just had general discussions or mentions of wanting to re-sign the players.”

• A second-round pick (No. 58 overall) in the 2018 draft, Hallander returns to the Penguins after spending a season in the Maple Leafs’ system, albeit playing for Lulea of the Swedish Hockey League (SHL) in 2020-21.

Hallander was dealt to the Maple Leafs on Aug. 25 in a multi-player trade that brought forward Kasperi Kapanen to the Penguins.

“We felt very comfortable with the player,” Hextall said. “We had the background on Filip. He’s 21 years old. He’s not 18 or 19. He’s somewhat of a seasoned player. I would hope he comes into camp and pushes for a spot. But in the end, that’s going to be up to Filip. When you come from Europe to the smaller (North American rink), to a new culture, there’s a lot going on for young players. So sometimes they’re not ready. But certainly, I would hope at some point (during the 2021-22 season) or certainly training camp (in 2022), I would certainly hope he’s ready. But if Filip comes in September and knocks us out, we’ll make decisions from there.”

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Seth Rorabaugh is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Seth by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .

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