On December 14, 2015, the Pittsburgh Penguins pulled Rob Scuderi from their lineup at the last minute before a home game against the Washington Capitals. Halfway through the game, a loss, they traded him to the Chicago Blackhawks for Trevor Daley. No one had seen it coming. No one had heard a whiff or a sniff of a serious deal going down for Scuderi, let alone one in the middle of a game.
On January 16, 2016, Penguins General Manager Jim Rutherford burned the midnight oil. In a deal that went down on the 16th here and the 15th on the west coast, the Penguins’ GM swapped with the Anaheim Ducks for Carl Hagelin. The trade was heralded as a rare “hockey trade” as in a trade designed to change both teams for the better. For Hagelin, who had been struggling in Anaheim, the Penguins sent their own struggling winger in David Perron and extra defenseman Adam Clendening out west. No one even knew the teams in question were seriously shopping either player. No one had heard a real whisper, as far as I can remember, even three hours before the deal was done because I would not have gone to sleep if I knew a deal was coming.
What we can learn from both of these situations is that Jim Rutherford doesn’t mess around with his trades. He’s become well known around the league for being the early trader. He gets his big pieces earlier in the season for two reasons. The first is to ensure they fit with the team dynamic. The second is to cut costs. If you go to a Black Friday sale for a Christmas gift you’re certainly getting it cheaper than if you wait until the week before Christmas (trust me, I’m kind of a Black Friday aficionado).
So this year at the deadline there are whispers. Word is the Penguins are interested in Mikkael Boedker if Arizona isn’t keeping him (they’d be crazy not to at least ask). Some say the flightless birds are talking to the Maple Leafs about Roman Polak. I’m not sure I’d believe any of them.
Sure, last year the trade for Phil Kessel looked like it was happening way before it was, but that was a unique case. As we learned with the Dion Phaneuf to Ottawa and Carl Hagelin to Pittsburgh trades this year, sometimes there isn’t going to be smoke before there is fire.
The general gist is that the Penguins want another top-4 defenseman. Trevor Daley bolstered their defense and was a huge upgrade to Scuderi, but the new system is not agreeing with Ben Lovejoy and the team could use another body to plug into the top-4. They’re also talking about some forwards. My sense is these would be to add more depth scoring. I’m not sure if they’re serious about this or just keeping their ears open. So we will focus in on some defensemen the team could target.
Kris Russell, Brian Campbell, Keith Yandle and Dan Hamhuis are some of the bigger defensive names being tossed around. The Penguins would be wise not to focus on any of these guys. They don’t need someone too old, too expensive, or potentially slow. The key to both moves they’ve made so far is that the Penguins made the team faster and saved money, so while these are the big splash kind of names they’re unlikely.
No, they’d be much more likely and wiser to go off the board. Matt Bartkowski, a Pittsburgh-area native currently with the Vancouver Canucks, comes in at just under 2 million and is a UFA this summer. It would be a nice fit for the team. He’s still relatively young at 27, has a hunger to prove himself and earn a nice paycheck this summer. But ideally, the team wouldn’t go for a UFA. They’d go for something like they did with both Daley and Hagelin, someone with term. Daley has another season after this one and Hagelin has two more. Another top-4 dman with term or a pending RFA would be more ideal. Think, more Tyson Barrie and less Kris Russell.
Who fits this description?
Matt Dumba’s struggling Minnesota Wild need a roster overhaul, and he’s a pending restricted free agent. He’s another product of the defenseman-heavy first round of the 2012 entry draft that produced Maatta and Pouliot on the Penguins’ current roster. He’s only 21, though, and likely wouldn’t be given up easily. Another slim chance could be Jacob Trouba from Winnipeg, also out of the first round of the 2012 draft. The team just signed Byfuglien to a long deal and still hopes to keep captain Ladd. What kind of money will be left for Trouba then? Again, these two options are unlikely but they’re not impossible (I mean Rutherford got Daley for Scuderi so anything is possible).
More likely options are players like Paul Postma of the Winnipeg Jets. Postma is in a tough situation. Winnipeg is looking like it might not be the right fit for him, but he has shown promise over the years. In 2014-15 he suited up for the Jets in 42 games. This year he’s only been in two, but he does have some wheels. The 26 year-old can skate quickly and that’s important for anyone looking to be added to this Penguins team. He costs just $887,000 a year, so he would be cheap, but “top-4” might be a stretch for him.
Another option could be Justin Schultz. Schultz, who is playing on an Edmonton Oilers team looking at the draft lottery again, isn’t an overwhelming defender but could be a fit. He’s only 25 and an RFA this summer so the Penguins would have some control over his contract situation. Schultz is more expensive at $3.9 million for the season, but perhaps the Penguins could send back another expiring contract like Ben Lovejoy’s and a draft pick to help make it work better mathematically.
And saving what is perhaps the best fit for last? Matt Hunwick of the Toronto Maple Leafs. He costs half as much as Roman Polak and comes with a year on his deal to allow the team the wiggle room to figure out what’s going on with some of their young defensemen. He does not score a ton but his possession numbers are strong, especially on a bad team. Last season, he was a member of the New York Rangers fast-paced squad that made it all the way to the Eastern Conference Final, so he should be able to handle the fast moving Penguins system.
In terms of trade assets, the Penguins are in flux with their early round picks. Their 2016 1st round pick hinges on whether they make the 2016 playoffs or not. If they do, it goes to Toronto and the Penguins retain their 2nd round pick. If they don’t make the 2016 playoffs, the Pens keep their own 1st round pick in 2016 and give up their 2017 1st round pick. However, in terms of definitive capital, the Penguins do have an extra 2nd round pick from Anaheim that they obtained in the Perron/Clendening-Hagelin deal. The Penguins could also part with a young player not projected to be in the mix either this year or next.
Ultimately, it comes down to what Rutherford thinks is the best addition that won’t rock the boat too much. The chemistry in the room in Pittsburgh this year is really great and as a group they’ve really shown some resolve of late. You don’t want to trade the wrong piece and potentially throw that all out of whack. So it’s probably not going to be a big move, it’s probably not going to be a big name, but Rutherford doesn’t look done yet. Though let’s all hope that next time he calls the trade in before bedtime for most of the East Coast.