Back in the summer of 2015, Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford stuck quickly and decisively to trade, in essence, Brandon Sutter for Nick Bonino and then signed Eric Fehr as a free agent. Suddenly what looked like a weakness for bottom-6 centers became a strength for Pittsburgh.
Two years later, Rutherford needs to strike again. With Bonino on the verge of free agency (and attracting many suitors and perhaps $4-5 million a year in salary), Pittsburgh can’t afford to keep him. The free agent market is pretty grim, along with Bonino there’s only Joe Thornton (who’s 38 years old, coming off knee surgery and rumored to be interested in staying in San Jose or LA) and Martin Hanzal, also in high-demand.
Rutherford seemed to hint that something is in the works to the Tribune Review’s Jonathan Bombulie:
“It's like all trades,” Rutherford said. “You don't know if it's going to happen or when it's going to happen, but there's been enough conversation here over the last week that something could happen.”
Beyond that the free agent market for centers is pretty slim with players better suited in 4th line roles like Brian Boyle and Dominic Moore. The Penguins could probably use a guy like that too, depending on status of Matt Cullen, but that’s a different story for a different day.
Part of the genius of the Bonino acquisition in 2015 was it came out of left field. Not many Penguins observers expected a trade, and virtually no one knew that Bonino was a possibility. Then, in the blink of an eye, it was a reality.
So now the question becomes, who could be the next Bonino?
Nick Bjugdstad - Florida Panthers
Status: Signed until 2020-21 for $4.1 cap hit
2016-17 stats: bad, 7 goals, 7 assists in 54 games
It’s unknown if Florida is getting antsy about the big money contract for Bjugstad, but if they are, this should be a first place that Pittsburgh looks. Acquisition price might be high, but the Panthers have done some wild things of late and just clearing a chunk of salary might be seen as a positive for them. So that’s a bridge to cross later, if they will even hear proposals about him.
Bjugstad is young (25 later this summer) and a former first round pick who’s seem to been in a bit of a rut the past couple seasons in Florida. He could be a perfect young player to change scenery and be a 40-50 point player in Pittsburgh and has the size (6’6, 220) that anyone would like.
Will it happen? Probably not, but coming off a down year this could be a “buy low” situation that seems worth checking into at least.
Derrick Brassard - Ottawa Senators
Status: Signed until 2018-19 for a $5.0 million cap hit
2016-17 stats: 14g+25a in 81 games
Brassard did not have an impressive regular season but was among Ottawa’s best playoff performers. Perhaps they have little interest in losing him at this juncture. But as a team that left Bobby Ryan (who wasn’t too shabby in the playoffs himself) and his $7.25 million cap hit exposed for the expansion draft, the Sens never seem to have a problem getting out of a salary.
The Penguins have some excess, promising young forwards to offer up. A lot of fans probably wouldn’t want guys like Bryan Rust or Scott Wilson included in trades, but you have to give to get. It’s doubtful either (or both) would be enough to pull Brassard, but it could certainly be a starting point for talks if Ottawa would have interest.
Brassard would be a perfect center for the Pens, at 29 he can keep up with the speedier players and has the all-around game to compliment and help drive a 3rd scoring line that would benefit from seeing weaker matchups when teams have to focus on the Crosby and Malkin lines. Add in only 2 years left on his contract (so it would clear just in time for the Jake Guentzel raise in his next contract extension) and Brassard to Pittsburgh looks like a great fit if only they would be able to work something out with Ottawa.
Zemgus Girgensons - Buffalo
Restricted free agent
2016-17 stats: 7g+9a in 75 games
Along the lines of Bjugstad, the 23-year old Girgensons has also seemed to plateau in his organization with two lackluster seasons. Pens former assistant GM Jason Botterill is looking to remake the Sabres, and what better way to start then with players he knows the best in Pittsburgh? Would Botterill fancy giving Derrick Pouliot a true NHL chance? If so, with Girgensons also a former 2012 first round draft pick, this seems like a natural starting point for a trade.
Markus Granlund - Vancouver
$900,000 for 2017-18 (RFA after)
2016-17 stats: 19 goals, 13 assists in 69 games
Hey, GMJR picked the Canucks pocket once to get Bonino, why not again? The 24-year old Granlund has shown flashes but for a team like Vancouver looking to add NHL skill, would a couple of pieces from Pittsburgh catch their fancy?