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Early look: who could be the best NHL trade deadline pickups of 2019?

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Assessing team needs and potential league-wide options for the next NHL deadline.

NHL: Pittsburgh Penguins at New York Islanders Dennis Schneidler-USA TODAY Sports

Last year at this time fans of the Pittsburgh Penguins were in search of a third line center...And a fourth line center. We all knew trades were coming to add to the team, just a matter of when. They did; in October the Pens added Riley Sheahan and then had to wait until February to be able to pull the trigger and add Derick Brassard.

Looking at the Pittsburgh roster this year, the team is stacked and deep just about everywhere. In net they have three goalies they are comfortable with in the NHL - a bright side of Matt Murray’s injuries at least meant they learned some good things about Casey DeSmith and Tristan Jarry at the NHL level. Up front the Pens are ridiculously deep - so deep that Zach Aston-Reese might have to start the year in the AHL. On defense the steady and capable Chad Ruhwedel will fit back in as the #7 extra player, but one the team can have confidence in if he’s needed to play due to injury.

Add that to the fact the team will be about $1 million - $1.75 million under the upper limit of the cap (depending on who stays and goes after training camp) and as always there’s not a lot of salary flexibility for Pittsburgh early in the year. Nothing new for this team, but it’s another piece of evidence that there probably won’t be any trades anytime soon.

The trade deadline however could be a different story. On paper, right now you would think the biggest holes on the team would be:

  • Scoring depth on LW. After Jake Guentzel the Pens have no real great options on their left. Carl Hagelin is a decent enough third wheel on a line but never produces many points. Bryan Rust or even Brassard at times may be pushed to the left side, but neither option overwhelms or could be good long-term fits.
  • 1st line right winger for Crosby. The 1RW spot will be a fun one to watch, and if 2017-18 is any guide there will likely be a TON of players who play next to Guentzel-Crosby. Rust, Patric Hornqvist, Dominik Simon and Daniel Sprong probably all stand to get a chance at different points to stick here. Coach Mike Sullivan has been quick to rotate bodies around Sid, ever-searching for the hot hand to play on the top line. If those auditions don’t lead to someone emerging, in an ideal world maybe a trade could happen to bring in an established and true 1st line right wing.
  • Defensive depth. We live in a world where with two injuries, Juuso Riikola is in the NHL? Or a veteran like Zach Trotman or Kevin Czuczman who would be heavily sheltered and only play 10-12 minutes a game? Scary thought. Every team could always stand to add an extra body or two on defense in a salary cap world, if possible. The Pens would be no different.

It’s always difficult to predict who could be buyers and sellers at the deadline, especially six months out. Usually the bottom feeding teams are content to cut losses on veteran impending free agents and there are some interesting targets that could be out there.

OTTAWA SENATORS

Most figure the Senators to be in store for a rough 2018-19, and to make matters worse for them easily the three best players on their team are all set to be UFAs next summer. Erik Karlsson is an impossibility; Pittsburgh has none of the young talent Ottawa would want, nor the salary structure to add Karlsson long-term. Matt Duchene was an oft-rumored Pittsburgh trade target but with Brassard’s presence, Duchene’s not needed. Mark Stone carries a $7.35m salary and the Sens have never been one to retain a lot of money. On the ice he would be a home-run addition to Crosby’s wing, but real world finances and a lack of trade ammo push it way out of reasonable range.

MONTREAL CANADIENS

There’s no doubt that across the entire league Max Pacioretty might be this year’s Evander Kane type of add as the best forward that everyone knows is about to be traded soon. At $4.5 million the salary is reasonable to add if Pittsburgh banks space throughout the year and includes a player like Simon or Aston-Reese in the potential trade. Pacioretty, a natural left winger, would be a dynamite fit in Pittsburgh on the ice, but surely just about every playoff contender in the league would have some level of interest.

Defenseman Jordie Benn has a relatively cheap contract ($1.1m) and could be of interest as a depth defense option to add as well.

NEW YORK ISLANDERS

Another team potentially in transition that has some SERIOUS talent about to hit UFA. There’s a lot here that would look good in black and Pittsburgh gold (aka yellow). Jordan Eberle has a $6.0m cap hit which may push him past boundaries of an add unless NYI is willing to retain. Brock Nelson ($4.25m) and Anders Lee ($3.75m) are much better here and offer some LW depth.

But before Pens fans get too excited, remember Lou Lamoriello is in charge on the Island. In his 28 years as general manager of New Jersey, Lamoriello made a grand total of one trade with Pittsburgh (for Stephane Richer, if you were curious). Who knows if Lou will be keeping his draconian policies of not dealing with a powerful division rival but if he does, all the Islander players may be off limits for the Pens.

BUFFALO SABRES

The door may not be closed on Jeff Skinner as a Penguin after all (or at least until he re-signs with the Sabres). If Skinner doesn’t sign and Buffalo isn’t going anywhere, it would be in their interests to move him for more than they traded for him. Which won’t be too difficult since the price was very low (2nd, 3rd, basic prospect) for a great winger. A lot would have to sort out to have it all add up, but it’s worth remembering down the line.

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As the season progresses we should have a better idea of which teams may be interested in selling a veteran to a contender and that availability will shape the Pens direction. As of now Pittsburgh has a 1st AND 2nd round draft pick in 2019 and that figures to be their usual biggest selling points to address adding more.

Luckily though, with a team looking well-rounded and deep at the moment, there’s no rush needed. GM Jim Rutherford often makes trades early in the season, but this year he can afford to be patient and see how things go for his group and around the league and then assess how best to add talent.