But, hark! It is. The Penguins offseason is not even two weeks old, and discussions about trading Malkin -- or listening to offers -- have been in the headlines almost non-stop. This, of course, is nothing new. The idea of listening to offers for Malkin, and, yes, even Sidney Crosby, has been brought up numerous times over the past two years. (You can read some of the many examples by clicking here, here, here, here, here and here -- there's more, of course, just Google the words: Trade, Evgeni, Malkin).
The common theme: the salary cap. The perception seems to be that a team can't commit such large chunks of money to so few players and still build a competitive team in the salary cap era. In reality, the opposite appears to be true. Successful teams in the NHL all have this in common: they have nearly half (or more than half) of their allotted salary cap space (this year, $56.8 million) tied up in just five players.
Here are the top 15 teams in the NHL this season in terms of salary cap commitments to its top-five players.
That's 11 of this year's 16 playoff teams, and all eight teams that advanced beyond the first round. The top six includes three of this year's final four (San Jose, Philadelphia and Montreal), as well as the two teams (Pittsburgh and Detroit) that played in the previous two Stanley Cup Final. The New York Rangers, a team that's made some questionable -- and bizarre -- investments the past couple of years, are obviously the outlier of the group. As I argued in this space a couple of weeks ago, good teams in today's NHL are constructed of five or six big money, core players, with the remainder of the roster filled in with cheaper veteran role players and younger complimentary players. The days of having a complete roster without a weakness are gone. Every team is going to have one. For a team like Philadelphia, it might be its goalies. For Pittsburgh, it's going to be its wingers.
Let's take a look at the four teams that made it to this year's conference finals: the San Jose Sharks, Chicago Blackhawks, Montreal Canadiens and Philadelphia Flyers.
By advancing to the Western Conference Final the Sharks were able to shake, at least in some part, their label of postseason chokers (well, until they were swept in four games by Chicago, that is).
No team in the NHL this season had a higher percentage of its salary cap go to its top five players, and two of them are eligible for unrestricted free agency on July 1: forward Patrick Marleau and starting goaltender Evgeni Nabokov. Even if both players decide to test the open market and move on to new teams, the Sharks are still going to be in a position where they're going to be committing over $21 million in cap space to Thornton, Heatley and Boyle, while also having to give what will most likely be sizable pay raises to restricted free agents Joe Pavelski (one of the key catalysts to their postseason run this year) and winger Devin Setoguchi. And there's also the possibility that they could be a buyer in the free agent/trade market to replace the potential losses of Marleau and/or Nabokov (they did, after all, go out and pick up Heatley and Boyle the last two summers).
Paul Holmgren might end up getting the last laugh this season, after his decision to go with Brian Boucher and Michael Leighton as his playoff goalies was scrutinized, criticized and torn apart by, well, pretty much everybody.
The Flyers have big money invested in forwards (Briere, Gagne, Richards, Jeff Carter, Scott Hartnell) and defense (Pronger, Timonen, Coburn) and peanuts invested in goaltending (Boucher and Leighton combine to count just over a $1 million against this year's cap). And they're one win away from their first trip to the Stanley Cup Final since 1997. The biggest cap hits on the team belong to Briere, Pronger and Timonen. Briere's contract has been seen as a disappointment -- an albatross, even -- because he hasn't matched the 90-point ability he flashed in Buffalo, and because he lost almost an entire season to injury. But he's still a gifted offensive player and has been dynamite in the playoffs. The investments in rearguards like Pronger and Timonen have allowed them to get by with waiver-wire pickups and career backups in net (the Red Wings model: invest heavily in defense, go with a goalie that won't lose the game).
It might be somewhat of a surprise to see Montreal have so much invested in just five players because it really doesn't have a true "superstar" on its roster. The Canadiens did, however, go hog wild in free agency prior to the season, signing Cammalleri and Gionta (along with smaller signings like Hal Gill and Travis Moen), while also trading for Gomez.
They made a huge investment in front-line players, and while the play of Jaroslav Halak and the defense in front of him have been a significant part of the team's postseason success, you can't overlook the fact that Cammalleri and Gionta, their two biggest free agent signings, and, thus, two of their highest paid players, have combined for 21 of their 44 postseason goals through Sunday.
And then we have the Chicago Blackhawks. Their cap situation isn't that bad this season, but next season, it is going to hit the proverbial fan. This is about go to biblical. Next year the big-money contract extensions to Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith are set to kick in, to go along with Hossa, Campbell, Sharp and right on down the list.
I'm sure they would love to find a taker for the Campbell and Huet contracts, and there's no way they're going to even entertain the thought of trading Toews, Kane, Keith or Brent Seabrook. So, in the end, the cap crunch is likely going to cost them some combination of Kris Versteeg ($3 million), Dustin Byfuglien ($3 million) and/or Andrew Ladd (restricted free agent). Obviously, such a loss will make a dent in the overall strength of the team, but the 'Hawks are still going to have a core of Kane, Toews, Hossa, Keith and Seabrook, which is as good as any group of five in the NHL. In other words, they're going to be fine.
(All salary cap numbers via NHLnumbers)