Why Was Olli Maatta Demoted by the Penguins?

It’s that time of year again.

The annual opening day roster shuffle, when the Pittsburgh Penguins make curious transactions to maximize salary cap flexibility.

We’ve reviewed the details of these moves in prior years:

  • In 2010: the Penguins demoted Eric Tangradi to Wheeling (ECHL) and recalled Patrick Killeen from Wheeling on opening day.
  • In 2013: Beau Bennett was demoted to Wheeling and Harrison Ruopp was temporarily recalled from Wilkes-Barre Scranton (AHL).
  • In 2014: Andrew Ebbett, Zach Sill, and Taylor Chorney were assigned to WBS.

This year, Olli Maatta was nominated to make the overnight trek to the minor leagues.  Pascal Dupuis was placed on Injured Reserve. Eric Fehr and Tom Kuhnhackl were placed on the injured non-roster list.

Oskar Sundqvist was summoned from Wilkes-Barre to put the Penguins as close to the $71.4 million salary cap ceiling as possible. This is necessary to maximize long-term injured reserve relief early in the season. (Be sure to read the prior year articles for a full explanation)

Here is the Penguins’ opening day roster and cap situation, ignoring the impact of performance bonuses:

Penguins Opening Roster 2015

What does maximizing salary cap flexibility really mean?

If a player is expected to miss at least 10 games and 24 days, teams can take the long-term injury exception and exceed the salary cap by an amount equal to that of the injured player’s cap hit.  Pascal Dupuis (expected to miss 4-5 weeks with a lower-body injury) and Eric Fehr (recovering from offseason elbow surgery) are candidates for this exception.

My annual reminder: cap hits for injured players don’t “come off the books”. All cap hits continue to count. The team is simply allowed to exceed the salary cap by a certain amount, depending on who and when the player is placed on LTIR.

[Pittsburgh Penguins Updated Salary Cap Situation]

Timing is the important part of the opening day roster shuffle.  Let’s assume Pascal Dupuis will be the first one placed on LTIR. The Penguins have two choices:

  1. They can start the season with Dupuis on LTIR. If they do, they are deemed to have replaced Dupuis’ salary and that becomes their effective cap ceiling. Pittsburgh would want to be as close as possible to a total roster value of $75.2 million (71.4 + 3.75 Dupuis cap hit). This is challenging because the NHL roster limit is 23 players and most minor-league players have small cap hits. Very tough to temporarily add enough players to make this work.
  2. They can wait and place Dupuis on LTIR the day after opening rosters are set. In this scenario, the Penguins would want to be as close to the $71.4 million ceiling as possible with Dupuis.  Based on the summary above, they had less than $8k of room under the cap by swapping Maatta for Sundqvist temporarily. It wasn’t as close as last year, but that’s about as close as you get.

Why was Olli Maatta demoted? 

Other than having an ideal cap hit to make the dollars work, Maatta also didn’t require waivers. Sergei Plotnikov and Daniel Sprong are the only other waiver exempt players on the NHL roster.

Why didn’t Maatta go to Wheeling?

In the past, most players temporarily demoted have reported to Wheeling of the ECHL because of its proximity to Pittsburgh. The Penguins open on the road this season and already flew to Dallas on Tuesday afternoon. Maatta can report to Wilkes-Barre and then likely fly direct to Dallas out of one of the major surrounding airports in time for the opener on Thursday night.

What is Injured Non-Roster?

According to the CBA:

“For any other Player who fails the Club’s initial physical examination in any League Year, or is injured, ill or disabled while not on the Club’s Active Roster, he shall not be eligible for, and may not be placed on, Injured Reserve, but instead shall be eligible to be, and may be designated as, Injured Non-Roster.”

Fehr underwent offseason surgery and Kuhnhackl suffered an undisclosed injury in training camp. Both are deemed Injured Non-Roster but this can be considered the same as Injured Reserve for our purposes.

Then why are you including Fehr’s cap hit and not Kuhnhackl’s in the chart above?

Season-opening injured reserve can get a little complicated when it comes to calculating cap hit. All you need to know is that:

  • Players on one-way contracts or players on two-way deals who accrued 50+ NHL games last season count in full (Eric Fehr)
  • Players on two-way contracts who did not accrue any NHL games last season do not count (Tom Kuhnhackl)
(Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)
(Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

The Penguins have a handful of players with performance bonuses this year. Does any of that matter?

Yes and no.

I removed performance bonuses from the information above for the sake of simplicity.  I’m assuming that if you made it this far, you actually care about the salary cap and want to understand the details.

The truth is, even though the LTIR math still works the same, we can’t really ignore performance bonuses.  Neither can the Penguins.

Performance bonuses are included in a player’s cap hit until the terms of the bonus are no longer achievable. For Sergei Plotnikov, that means his cap hit right now is actually $3.775 million, not $925k. If Plotnikov fails to achieve any bonus thresholds, the Penguins are fine.

But Plotnikov is set to start the season alongside Evgeni Malkin and Patric Hornqvist. He starts to hit bonuses for achievements such as 20 goals or finishing in the top six forwards in ice time, as long as he plays a minimum of 42 games.

The Penguins are allowed to exceed the cap ceiling during the season as a result of these bonuses, but any bonuses Plotnikov achieves this year would then carry over as a penalty against next year’s salary cap. The problem with long-term injured reserve exception is that you effectively guarantee yourself a penalty for any achieved bonuses.

Derrick Pouliot, Daniel Sprong, and Oskar Sundqvist also have performance bonus criteria in their contracts, making this the first season Pittsburgh is at risk of a significant penalty if they aren’t careful. In other words, don’t expect the Penguins to rush Pouliot back to the NHL.

The Penguins also have to figure out how to be cap compliant again once Dupuis and/or Fehr return. Assuming the Penguins don’t suffer other significant injuries in the coming weeks, a trade is probably the only solution.

But let’s not kid ourselves.

The only Penguins tradition more consistent than the annual opening day roster shuffle is the long list of wacky injuries that are sure to follow.

Keep your calculator out. You’re going to need it.