Five games in the 2013-2014 NHL season, and the Pittsburgh Penguins are hanging by a trend . . . cap space-wise. In strictly financial terms, the Pens got lucky when Matt D'Agostini, Kris Letang, and Tomas Vokoun landed themselves on injured reserve. That meant the team could hide their salaries and be under the $64.3 million dollar salary cap when the season started. But those guys will be coming back (Letang the soonest) and their returning money will tighten the bind on the Pens wallet. Someone has to go.
Enter Matt Niskanen.
Niskanen has been playing out of his mind this fledgling season. In five games he has four assists and his lone goal was the game winner in Tampa Saturday. He's logging about 21 minutes a game, has a plus-7, and is paired with Paul Martin on the powerplay. He's been defensively stout in the Pens zone and has made good decisions with the puck. In short, Matt Niskanen is looking daggum great!
However . . . brace yourself Matt. Letang is coming. He skated on his own all this weekend and practiced with the team for a hour Sunday. With contact. When Letang returns, Olli Maatta will be sent down and Niskanen will be removed from the first team powerplay. That will affect his stats, not how well he's been playing. But the cap is a hard one, and there is no room for Niskanen's $2.3 million dollars.
The sad thing is, Niskanen's early success is making it easier to trade him. The Anaheim Ducks are looking for a defenseman as are the New York Islanders. The Penguins cannot deal any forwards because the team depth is thin there. Maatta's play is also making it a wiser move to move Niskanen. Instant replacement for two million less.
There are a couple things that can happen that will allow Niskanen to stay in a Pens jersey. There not likely things, but solutions nonetheless. The Penguins could release Matt D'Agostini or Chuck Kobasew and keep the other. They're both making $550,000. Releasing both is not a option (that pesky depth thing). If Tomas Vokoun retires, that frees up $2 million dollars, but no one's crossing their fingers for that.
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