After appearing lethargic for the first half of the NHL season, the Pittsburgh Penguins flipped the calendar to 2018 and have started the new year out strong. In the 12 games in January, the Penguins are 9-3, scoring 45 goals (3.75/game) and allowing 26 (2.17/game). Those numbers are more in line with what people (and the Penguins, themselves) were expecting this season.
This surge has lifted them from the periphery of the playoff race into 2nd place in the fiercely contested Metropolitan division. Virtually every other team in the Metropolitan and the Eastern Conference still have at least two games in hand on the Penguins, of course, but it appears as if this team is moving from “are they going to make the playoffs?” to “what does this team need to do at the trade deadline to solidify their spot?”
The Penguins have been on the hunt for a 3rd line center all offseason and all of this regular season. Riley Sheahan was brought in during October and is a good player, but for me he’s more of a 4th line center in terms of his point production. The one part about his game that is legit, and sometimes overlooked by many, is how strong he is on faceoffs for a team that overall is not very good. Sheahan’s 56.5% faceoff win percentage is highest on the team among those that regularly take them. It’s also higher than previous 3rd line center Nick Bonino’s 2016-17 percentage of 48%.
The team could also use another defenseman for the 3rd pairing, especially if Mike Sullivan continues to keep Ian Cole in his doghouse for whatever transgressions Cole has performed against House Sullivan. Jamie Oleksiak has been a fantastic under-the-radar add by Jim Rutherford, but every team needs depth for the playoff stretch run and the playoffs themselves. I have little faith in Matt Hunwick at this point.
Looking for specific names will be a future article, especially as the playoff race crystallizes a little further over the next few weeks. This article looks at the trade assets that may be in play, in order of desirability, for other teams. Crosby, Malkin, Kessel, Schultz, and Letang are not listed for various reasons that should be obvious.
There’s a question hanging in the air, both by fans and the front office themselves, about how much do you sacrifice for another Cup run. This team doesn’t have the same feel to it as the two previous Cup-winning teams, but perhaps the January Penguins are the Penguins we’ve been waiting the whole season for.
So from least to most desirable…
11. Ian Cole
Ian Cole is a good player. He and Mike Sullivan have some unspecified, yet spicy, beef between the two of them. He should be playing regular minutes for the Pens on the 2nd or 3rd defense pairing. But he’s not, so it stands to reason that even though he’s the only consistent hitter AND shot blocker on the defense corps, he may be on the block this month.
However, he’s mostly in play for salary cap relief. As of this writing, the Penguins have $1.4M of cap space that will swell up to $2.3M at the deadline. To oversimplify, the Penguins could assume a contract of a player today that was making $1.4M this year or one at the deadline making $2.3M for the year. That doesn’t buy you much if you’re looking for an impact player. By adding in Cole’s $2.1M, you can start to increase that threshold. You’ll have to append a draft pick to Cole in order to entice a rebuilding team to take the soon-to-be unrestricted free agent in a trade.
10. Carl Hagelin
Even though Hagelin has picked up his point production in January (2 G – 6 A, 12 games), he’s still been very underwhelming all year based on the amount of ice time he’s received. To make matters worse, he’s under contract next year for a $4M cap hit, as well.
Hagelin may not be appealing to a rebuilding team at first blush, but there are teams out there that get guys solely to reach the salary floor in the NHL. A rebuilding team like the Coyotes, for example, could sure do a lot worse than bringing Hagelin’s speed and his Cup-winning experience into the fold. Especially if the Penguins sweeten a potential deal with a 2nd round pick. Now, I’m not necessarily saying the Coyotes have some players of interest for the Penguins; I’m just giving an example of how this could work.
And by the way, if the Penguins use a draft pick or a prospect to append to Hagelin to clear his salary out, that’s the same as what the Pirates are accused of routinely doing.
9. Daniel Sprong
Daniel Sprong is only 20 and he’ll be a restricted free agent after this year. With his minimal NHL time, he won’t get much of a raise over his current $692,500 salary. He has a great deal of offensive potential. So why is he so low on the list?
I think the word is getting out around the league that Sprong is indifferent to the concept of defense and he has a less-than-gleaming work ethic. He may already be damaged goods in some teams’ eyes.
He’s intriguing enough, though, that he could be part of a trade to obtain an upgrade for 2018. The Penguins may not be worried about his future with them, as it were.
8. Conor Sheary
The news on Thursday that Sheary is week-to-week with an injury clouds his trade status a touch, but not in the long-term. Sheary has had a drastic dropoff in his point production this year, leading some to question whether the shine has come off the apple. His 0.36 points/game is a steep drop from his 0.87 points/game last year. If Sheary isn’t scoring, he isn’t really doing much else for the team either. He’s not a prime power play guy and doesn’t kill penalties.
As long as the injury isn’t too long in nature, Sheary will still probably score right around 20 goals again. There’s something to be said for that. Is that worth $3M a year for the next two years after this season to a team?
7. Bryan Rust
Rust is just returning from his own injury and, like most of the Penguins, has been experiencing a down year in production. While his overall point totals are still strong, he’s only tallied 6 goals in 41 games, as opposed to 15 in 57 last year.
Rust gives you other things than Sheary, though. He’ll occasionally kill penalties and he’ll bring an element of grit to his game that Sheary doesn’t possess.
Rust is also a restricted free agent after this year, so he’ll be in that $2.75M-$3.25M range of salary himself starting next year.
6. Jake Guentzel
Much like Sheary and Rust, Guentzel has experienced a dropoff in point production, even though he’s received plenty of top-6 minutes and power play time.
However, Guentzel has more natural offensive talents than those two and it can’t be overlooked how dominant he was in his inaugural Stanley Cup playoffs last year. When you add in the fact that Guentzel will play the 2018-19 season at a cap hit of only $734,167 before he hits restricted free agency, you get a very intriguing asset to move in a deal.
Obviously, we’re getting into the tier of trade assets that may make some fans cringe at the thought of having to give them up.
5. Brian Dumoulin
Dumoulin is a non-flashy asset. There’s nothing about him that instantly jumps off the page and says “I gotta get that guy!” But he’s a classic stay-at-home defenseman with an unfussy game that never goes out of style. He can skate, he’s a very good penalty killer and he’s still just 26.
Dumoulin is signed for a cap hit of $4.1M for the next five seasons after this one. For some teams, that’s a bonus. For others, it may be viewed as a detriment. He’s a 2nd pairing defenseman on virtually every team in the league. He would be in demand if the Penguins decided to include him in a deal for a key piece at the trade deadline.
4. Olli Maatta
Olli Maatta has experienced a resurgence this year. He’s nearly the whole way back to his rookie year level of performance and is justifying the decision of Jim Rutherford to give him his 6 year/$24.5M deal back in February 2016.
Maatta is never going to be called “fleet of foot”. But he’s 23 and will be paid a cap hit of $4.08M for the subsequent four seasons after this one. Like Dumoulin, he’s a 2nd pairing defenseman for most teams. He sees time on the power play and kills penalties well. It’s hard to imagine what type of player the Penguins would get back in return if Maatta were included in a trade, but suffice it to say, it would be for a premium player only.
3. Pens’ 1st Rd Pick
Draft picks are currency in today’s NHL, especially for teams in a deep rebuild state. Even though the Penguins pick will most likely be near the end of the round, there’s still a lot of value to be gleaned in a draft with a 1st round pick.
2. Tristan Jarry
Not to foment another goalie debate, but the Penguins are not going to be able keep both Murray and Jarry happy in the long run. Murray has already established himself as a franchise goalie and Tristan Jarry has the pedigree and minor league numbers to say that he could be one, too.
Jarry is 22 and a restricted free agent after this season, where he’ll receive only a modest increase over his $630,833 salary. A young team on the rise would love to snap up a potential franchise goalie of his caliber for the peanuts that he’ll cost next year.
1. Matt Murray
Murray is 23, just one year older than Jarry. Prior to this season, he played parts of two NHL seasons and backstopped the Penguins to two Stanley Cups. He’s making just $3.75M per season for the next two seasons after this one, but then he’ll still be a restricted free agent.
The goalie position is somewhat devalued in today’s NHL, but Murray is still an extremely desirous commodity to the many franchises out there in search of their own franchise goalie.
Obviously, moving Murray would be incredibly bold and would mean they’d entrust the Cup run to Jarry (unless a veteran goalie was brought back in the deal). I certainly couldn’t see it happening mid-season, but you can’t rule it out entirely, either.