Pittsburgh Penguins General Manager Jim Rutherford made more than a few waves at this year’s NHL draft.
First there was the controversial trade of James Neal to the Nashville Predators for Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling. Then during his post-first round press conference, Rutherford proclaimed that the Penguins would be extremely active during free-agency, and could sign as many as four players on July 1st.
If the Penguins re-sign RFA forwards Brandon Sutter and Nick Spaling, that will leave them with just over $10 million in cap space to sign four or five forwards and at least one defenseman. Given the budget issues, many had written the Penguins off as a team that would not at all be a factor in free agency.
If Rutherford’s statements are true, then the only feasible way that the Penguins will have enough money to acquire so many UFA’s would be to clear some cap room via trade. Dumping Rob Scuderi’s $3.5 million cap hit would be a great place to start (hello, Buffalo?), but with the cap coming in lower than expected ($69 million as opposed to the projected $71 million), that’s probably a bit of a pipe dream.
Another name that has been floated as far as trade targets is defenseman Paul Martin. Martin will turn 34 this season, and has one year remaining on a contract that carries a $5 million cap hit. He is without a doubt the Penguins most reliable defenseman, but with so many young, cheap defensive prospects ready to make the jump to the NHL, they may make Martin expendable.
The return for Martin, both in terms of alleviated cap-space as well as any picks or prospects sent the other way, could end up greatly benefiting the Penguins down the road.
It’s a tough decision. Do you dump your best defenseman and go into the season with a mostly rookie group on the blue line for the chance to improve your forward core, or do you keep Martin for one more season and try and fix your offensive problems on the cheap?
It’s risky no doubt, and don’t be surprised if the team ends up keeping Martin. That said, if they can’t find a taker for Scuderi, Martin very well could be on the move.
Regardless of roster moves they make with players under contract, The Penguins are still going to be hot in their pursuit of free-agent forwards. One in particular comes to mind: Nikolai Kulemin.
The 27-year-old winger has spent the last six seasons with the Maple Leafs where he usually spent time on the second and third lines.
Kulemin had a breakout season in 2011-12 that saw him score 30 goals, however he has only netted 14 total in the last two seasons.
And while that may not sound like a great selling point, his skill set was largely misused by Toronto head coach Randy Carlyle and his staff. What’s more, the two down seasons have largely dropped his price tag well into what the Penguins can afford.
Oh yeah, one more thing: he’s Evgeni Malkin’s best friend. Malkin and Kulemin both played for their hometown KHL club Metallurg Magnitogorsk during the lockout, as well as on the Russian national team at the Winter Olympics last February.
He has the skill and the stride to play with an elite center like Geno, and given the pair’s prior history together, one would have to think that any growing pains between the new line mates would be few and far-between.
Should Kulemin come to Pittsburgh, he would almost certainly replace Jussi Jokinen on Malkin’s left wing, however his size (6-1, 225 pounds) and tenacity would also make him a viable option on the third line should the Penguins need to switch things up.
If he does make the jump, he would most likely command something in the $2.8-3 million range as far as cap hit goes, an extremely friendly number for a player of Kulemin’s skill.