The Penguins??? 2019 offseason began much earlier than the team and its fans have come to expect. When the Penguins were swept out of the first round by the New York Islanders big changes were promised by General Manager Jim Rutherford. Phil Kessel, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang were all on the table as possibilities to be traded, but up until Saturday, the only player to be moved was defenseman Olli Maatta.
That all changed on Saturday night, when the Penguins acquired forward Alex Galchenyuk and defenseman Pierre-Olivier Joseph (23rd-overall pick in the 2017 NHL Draft) from the Arizona Coyotes in exchange for Phil Kessel, Dane Birks and a 2021 fourth-round draft pick.
Before either player acquired plays a game for the Penguins, the deal looks favorable for Pittsburgh. The 25-year-old Galchenyuk is coming off his lone season with Arizona, during which he recorded 41 points (19G-22A) in 72 games, eclipsing the 40-point plateau for the fifth-consecutive season. He led all Coyotes players with 19 goals (tied) and nine power play goals, while his 41 points were third best on the team. He is six years younger than Kessel and his cap hit is $1.9 less than Kessel???s ($6.8 million vs. $4.9 million). Also included in the deal for the Penguins is the 19-year old defenseman Joseph who just finished his fourth season in the Quebec Major Junior League with an impressive 47 points and a plus-36 rating in 62 games. However, he likely won???t be seen in the NHL for a few more seasons.
As mentioned above, the other trade that Rutherford pulled off earlier this offseason was moving Maatta to Chicago in exchange for promising young forward Dominik Kahun, who will be entering the final year of his entry-level contract. He carries an average annual value of $925,000 against the salary cap and will be a restricted free agent at the end of this upcoming season. During this past season with Chicago, his rookie campaign, the 23-year old recorded 37 points (13G-24A) in 82 games, while averaging 14:09 minutes per game. The 5-foot-11, 175-pound forward finished the year plus-10, which was best among all Chicago forwards and third overall on the team.
On paper, this was a great move for the Penguins, gaining a talented, young forward at an affordable salary and moving out a defenseman that had clearly lost a step. Additionally, Maatta was in year four of a six-year, $4 million per season deal. So, Kahun is a year younger and cost about $3 million less this season.
One of the Penguins??? core beliefs is that defensive pairings work best with one right-handed defenseman and one left-handed defenseman. Given this, Rutherford retained the services of Juuso Riikola and Chad Ruhwedel. Maatta was a left shot, so the thought is that Riikola, who is also a left shot, might replace him in the lineup. Riikola was signed to a one-year $850,000 deal, while Ruhwedel was signed to a two-year, $700,000 per season deal. Ruhwedel will most likely serve as the team???s seventh defenseman, but has proven during his tenure with the Penguins that he can go long stints as a healthy scratch, yet slot right back into the lineup and not be a liability.
The Maatta and Kessel trades freed up $5.1M under the cap, which Rutherford immediately used on day one of free agency to sign gritty forward Brandon Tanev to a six-year, $3.5 million per season deal. Undoubtedly, the term of the deal is too long for a third/fourth line type of player, but Rutherford is in ???win now??? mode so he gave Tanev extra term to ensure that he got the player he had targeted.
The Tanev deal leaves about $1.5 million under the cap, but Rutherford has also extended qualifying offers to restricted free agents Marcus Pettersson, Zach Aston-Reese, Teddy Blueger, Adam Johnson and Joseph Blandisi. Pettersson, Aston-Reese, and Blueger are expected to play much larger roles for the Penguins this season, while Johnson and Blandisi will be players that will be up and down between the NHL and AHL. Given that all of these players still need to be signed, it is likely that another trade will need to be made to make cap space. If Rutherford can pawn off Jack Johnson and his annual $3.25 million cap hit on the Senators who need to spend more than $1.6 million in salary just to get to the NHL-mandated salary floor, then that would solve a lot of the Penguins??? cap issues. However, even Ottawa is not likely to want to take on the four more years of term. Therefore, the more likely scenario is that the Penguins will have to part ways with Bryan Rust who makes $3.5 million in each of the next three seasons.
Rutherford was the architect of back-to-back Stanley Cup championships just two short seasons ago. The moves he???s made in the subsequent seasons have not worked out as planned. The sports industry is a very ???what have you done for me lately??? business, but Penguins??? fans shouldn???t be so quick to forget those two championship rosters that Rutherford put together and give him the chance to rebuild the Penguins into a contender. In the meantime, ask fans in Toronto, New York, Philadelphia, etc. if they would take even one of those championships.