The Pittsburgh Penguins are still looking to bolster their blue line for the upcoming season and are rumored to be one of the teams attempting to woo free agent defenseman Cody Franson.
Franson was drafted by the Nashville Predators and spent the first four years of his career as a minor leaguer or a third-pairing defender in their organization. They traded him to the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2011 and, over the past four seasons, he improved into a solid top four defenseman before getting traded back to Nashville in February.
The Penguins would be looking to the 6-foot-5, 213-pound, 28-year-old to add experience and size to their young defensive unit, but with the current salary cap situation, it would require a major move in order to accommodate his contract.
Current salary cap situation As it stands now, the Penguins are already tight against the cap for the coming season. Taking the assumed roster locks into account, the Penguins have one goaltender, six defensemen, and 12 forwards that take up $71.2 million out of the $71.4 million salary cap for the 2015-16 season.
However, $2.85 million of that is in the form of performance bonuses, which allows the team to exceed the salary cap by that amount, giving them just over $3 million is cap space to fill the final three or four roster holes. Depending on who earns the final spots in training camp, the Penguins can add one goaltender, one defenseman, and one forward and have between $0.7 million and $1.3 million in available cap space.
Expected role and salary range Franson has steadily climbed his way up the depth chart the past few years in Toronto and established himself as a top four defenseman. He is a right-handed shot and the Penguins already have Kris Letang for that role on their top pairing, so chances are he would end up slotting into the second pairing.
Franson has also steadily increased his salary through his past three contracts, most recently earning $3.3 million. Considering that as the cap increases every year, the average price to sign free agents also increases chances are he will cost even more. The last four Penguins to play a similar role included Brooks Orpik at $3.75 million, Zbynek Michalek and Christian Ehrhoff each at $4 million, and Paul Martin at $5 million.
So, it is reasonable to assume Franson would be looking at a new contract worth between $3.5 million and $5.5 million per year.
What it would take If the Penguins go with the cheaper backup goaltender in Jeff Zatkoff, one of the forwards earning league minimum as a 13th depth option, and send Derrick Pouliot to the AHL rather than get stuck in the logjam when they add yet another veteran blue liner to the NHL roster, the Penguins would still only have just under $1.9 million to work with to fill that final defense spot.
Unless he is willing to sign for a huge pay cut they will not be able to fit Franson in without making a trade or finding some other way to clear some significant salary. The most obvious choice would be parting ways with Rob Scuderi who carries a hefty $3.375 million cap hit for a guy expected to be the sixth or seventh defender. Doing so would require keeping up an additional defenseman, either Pouliot or one of the cheaper more experienced options. Even if it is Pouliot that would still leave them with over $4 million to spend on Franson.
However, that is easier said than done. It would be difficult to find somebody willing to take Scuderi, and he has a limited no-trade clause which allows him to choose eight teams which he cannot be traded to, limiting the number of teams who may be interested and making it fairly unlikely to find a willing partner. Chances are they would instead need to part with one of the now surplus of forwards.
Would it be worth hurting the offensive depth, especially in light of their usual injury troubles, by trading away Chris Kunitz, David Perron, or Pascal Dupuis? Is it worth giving up on the push for a youth movement on defense in order to add more experience? If they cannot find a way to clear Scuderi off the books it would require parting with one of their higher priced top nine forwards in order to clear enough cap space to sign Franson.
Gamble worth taking? The Penguins can sign Franson now and not worry about the salary cap for a few months. Forward Eric Fehr is expected to miss up to the first three months of the season and start the year on the long-term injured reserve. As a result, the Penguins can exceed the salary cap by his $2 million cap hit.
They could sign Franson now, assuming he is willing to sign for under $4 million, without having a trade in place to shed salary elsewhere and see what happens in the first few months of the season; hoping for a better deal, or another injury to come along that would allow them to continue to exceed the cap.