Monday’s article here on Pensburgh by Adam Gretz about what the Penguins have available to trade was interesting and got the gears going. With the idea of what Pittsburgh realistically would be looking to trade away (likely some combination of Derick Brassard, a 2019 first round pick, perhaps goalie Tristan Jarry, and perhaps a depth defenseman like Jamie Oleksiak), the next question becomes — what do they need?
That’s where this unofficial 2019 NHL trade deadline outlook will shift. Deadline day this year is Monday February 25, so we’re now t-minus six weeks from getting there.
Justin Schultz’s Return
One huge, unavoidable piece of good news is that the Pens are basically getting a “trade deadline-type addition” in about another month. That of course would be Justin Schultz, one of the team’s main defensemen who broke his leg in fourth game of the season. Any club that adds a right-handed defenseman who can skate well and move the puck exceptionally well for zero assets in January or February is going to be very happy.
Schultz will bring the body total to nine on the Pens’ blueline, assuming no one else suffers a major injury from now until the time No. 4 can get back. If so, general manager Jim Rutherford has already acknowledged that is too much and will force a decision to be made.
The easiest path would be to waive Chad Ruhwedel, who hasn’t been needed to play an NHL game since November 19 and would be even less necessary upon Schultz’s return.
In order to judge where the Penguins might want to add a player, let’s turn an eye toward the lineup they’re likely to use down the stretch. We’ll assume full health, which is dangerous but necessary, since no players as of now are expected to be out down the stretch.
Jake Guentzel - Sidney Crosby - Bryan Rust
Dominik Simon - Evgeni Malkin - Patric Hornqvist
Tanner Pearson - Derick Brassard - Phil Kessel
Zach Aston-Reese - Matt Cullen - Riley Sheahan
Brian Dumoulin / Kris Letang
Olli Maatta / Justin Schultz
Marcus Pettersson / Jack Johnson
Healthy scratches: Jamie Oleksiak, Juuso Riikola, Derek Grant
Where to Improve?
Honestly, the above roster looks very deep. It has a strong top-nine forward group, and a player like Aston-Reese who can capably move above a fourth line role if needed. The defense with Schultz looks a million times better than the patchwork blueline the Penguins have had to use all season long.
But at this point in the Penguins “franchise lifecycle,” the clock is ticking. Crosby, Malkin, Kessel, and Letang are all playing at incredible levels, but they won’t be there forever. From now until 87 retires, the best remaining chance to win another Stanley Cup is likely in 2019. It will be diminished if only slightly in 2020 and then further so in 2021.
So the Pens need to investigate on how to maximize strengthening their lineup to the limits of the salary cap and their limited trade arsenal. Washington has basically the same team that beat Pittsburgh in the playoffs, and the Capitals are clicking along nicely. Tampa Bay is absolutely stacked with talent and depth. Toronto’s addition of Tavares has taken them to a higher level. If the Penguins want to go all the way back, they’ll likely have to beat two of these teams within the first three rounds of the playoff, and the best chance to do that is to add more.
A nice lineup isn’t enough.
—Hornqvist has had two concussions in the last two months. Simon is a nice enough player who scores steadily at about half-a-point per game, but still seems a bit uninspiring in terms of total tools and finds himself in a top-six role often. Pearson and Rust have been streaky point producers. Guentzel and Kessel are bedrock players, but adding to the talent level on the wing could be the missing piece to take this team to the next level.
Third Line Center
—There’s still a real question to be answered here. Do the Penguins want Brassard in this role? Does he fit well enough? Will it work? There hasn’t been much on-ice evidence to suggest this is going to work out, but there’s also unknown availability of a real upgrade.
Who Could Be Out There
The pending free agent has been a popular name in the rumor mill as of late.
The 26-year-old also happens to be a pending unrestricted free agent with an extremely manageable salary cap hit of $1.75 million. The Hurricanes are five points back of the final wild-card spot in the East, and if the Hurricanes fall further out of the playoff race they can expect to receive some calls on the 6-foot-1, 217-pound winger.
“All Wilson’s done between last season and this season is create maybe a mini arms race in terms of teams now sitting there going, ‘the Cup has to come through the East with the Washington Capitals,’ so Ferland, of course, plays a real physical type of role and many teams believe that he could fit the bill in terms of pushing Washington through an Eastern Conference playoff,” Kypreos added.
Ferland’s ability to play the left or right side on any of the top three lines, and add some jam and ideally a bit of goal-scoring ability, would be an intriguing add for Pittsburgh. The price is reported to be a first round pick plus something, which remains to be seen how negotiations and the market would take that first ask. That shouldn’t be terribly offputting for an initial report as the seller tries to establish a high return, but it would seem incredibly doubtful any team is going to meet that ask.
It would make sense for Detroit to move on from the pending free agent and try to get younger. Nyquist is quietly having a very good season with 39 points (10 goals, 29 assists) in 47 games and has been another player to be versatile enough to be an option at left wing or right wing in his career.
The 28-year-old is also an impending free agent, and the Devils have been down on their luck this season. Johansson has played all three forward positions in the NHL, but doesn’t play much center anymore (and has only taken 23 faceoffs in 32 games this season). Ideally, if he were more of a fit at center, this could be the place to swap Brassard out and take a gamble here. But that brings the question if the players available are like Brian Boyle or Marcus Johnasson or Derick Brassard for the Pens, why isn’t the best player of the three (Brassard) the best choice to go with?
I’ve long been a fan of Schwarz, who is a very Guentzel-like player. He’s small but skillsy with great hands and offensive instincts. Schwartz, 26, has three years left on his contract. It’s been reported that the struggling St. Louis Blues may be looking to shake things up, so this could be a Pearson-like situation to buy somewhat low on a young player who is in need of a shake up.
Schwartz only has three goals in 30 games this season, shooting just 3.8 percent. He’s been an above-average shooter in his career, ending up in double digits (and typically 12-15 percent) in every other NHL season he’s played, suggesting this slump isn’t going to last forever. Also, the if the Blues are impatient or being brash to make changes, they’d be worth talking to.
As an NHL player with term, the trade ask here could be too much. Trading Brassard plus a draft pick and young player (say a Simon or an Aston-Reese) might get the Pens on the radar. Though it would then be worth asking what to do about the hole at center that would be created, and almost no trade chips, or salary cap space, left to use to fill it.
Schwartz may be way more fantasy than reality at this point, but then again, it was impossible to imagine Rutherford using a third team in Vegas to help retain 40 percent of Brassard’s contract to make him a possibility. So you never really know with Rutherford and the Penguins; they can find creative ways to get what they want.
The question to answer though is what direction do they even want to go this time around?