It's no secret that we believe the Pens' #1 priority at the trade deadline has to be a top-4 quality defenseman (with forward depth emerging in importance daily). Not one who is considered a "puck moving" defenseman, but someone who eats up space, clears the front of the net, and who opposing forwards generally find tough to play against. The farm system is supposedly loaded with young defensemen who can and should be included in any package to bring back an NHL-ready defenseman. But because a top-4 defenseman is not a need that's unique to the Pens, the asking price will be high. In addition to prospects, most teams will probably demand at least some current NHL-level talent in return. Looking at the Pens roster, there isn't much to spare. Except one guy.
|Stunned at what we're about to say about him.|
According to CapGeek, the Pens can add an additional $18.6 million in salary today for the remainder of this season. By the time the deadline rolls around on April 3rd, that number will have jumped to $35.7 million. The Pens are in a similarly enviable cap position next season. Even with the cap shrinking, the Pens are projected to be about $10.6 million under the cap with only three unrestricted free agents to potentially sign -- Matt Cooke, Pascal Dupuis, and Craig Adams -- none of whom will be expensive. Tyler Kennedy and Dustin Jeffrey are restricted free agents, but they can either be signed or replaced for very little money.
That means that for this year and next year, the Pens have plenty of cash to invest on the defense. Like, almost unlimited. For example, Jay Bouwmeester makes $6.68 million. We're not saying that he's the type of defensemen the Pens should target, but they could afford a guy making that much money, as long as his deal expires after next season.
The development of Simon Despres and Robert Bortuzzo, coupled with the addition of Mark Eaton means the Pens' D runs at least 8 deep. (Look how charming Mark Eaton is in this video talking about seeing Mario in the locker room after Game 5 of the 2009 Finals in Detroit and ask yourself if you would really rather root for Niskanen than Eaton). Niskanen is a nice piece of that group, but far from indispensable. Because he has such a low cap hit and is signed through next season, he would be a very valuable addition for a team that's looking to not only get its hands on one of the Pens' defensive prospects, but also save-face and add a real NHL-player to its current roster. Including him might also be enough to keep the Pens from having to trade Despres, who shows flashes of brilliance almost every game.
Whatever moves the Pens make at the deadline, the focus has to be on winning the Cup this season because the Pens are built for that. With or without Matt Niskanen.