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NHL Trade deadline: Maatta injury should re-align Penguins’ priorities back to defensive add

Trade rumors are quiet in Pittsburgh right now, but a new need has emerged

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NHL: Detroit Red Wings at Pittsburgh Penguins Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

There’s only ten days left to the NHL trade deadline and the Pittsburgh Penguins are in wait and see mode.

First and foremost, they need to see how the team responds to the big trade already made. They really haven’t had Evgeni Malkin available much to fit in with Nick Bjugstad (1 goal, 1 assist as a Penguin in 7 games) and Jared McCann (3 goals, no assists).

Will Bjugstad be their third line center? It seems like reports are true he’s better served on the wing. Can McCann scale up enough for the third line right now? Could be too big an ask. But there’s still time to see how the mix goes, especially with Teddy Blueger in the picture and playing well and Zach Aston-Reese healthy now too, the Pens at least have a bit to see a forward group with health.

The same can’t be said for the defense. Olli Maatta’s jarring injury may have reset the team’s strategies.

As Elliotte Friedman wrote recently on 31 Thoughts:

“Prior to Olli Maatta’s injury, Pittsburgh continued to look at available forwards.”

Forward though, seems OK - especially if Blueger continues to thrive and be productive. As it stands, with health they’ve already got a surplus.

That’s why the Maatta issue is big.

Maatta was at the charity event in a sling on his left arm. The Athletic’s Josh Yohe has reported a Grade 3 shoulder separation, that the team hopes surgery can be avoided and possibly have a 1-2 month absence.

Hope isn’t the best strategy, though, so really the Pens would be wise to assume Maatta’s worst case scenario.

In some ways this is shades of 2017 - where Kris Letang was held out of games and the hope (there’s that word again) was that rest would save his neck from surgery. That wasn’t the case and he was out for the playoffs. Luckily that year, general manager Jim Rutherford prepared by adding defensemen Ron Hainsey and Mark Streit for depth. Hainsey ended up playing 20 minutes a night on a de facto first pair that playoffs.

Who could be this year’s defensive depth addition?

Pittsburgh should look to a team that will be selling in the Detroit Red Wings and check in on Nick Jensen.

Jensen is playing 20:50 per night in Detroit, almost all even strength and penalty kill time. He also does something rare and has a trait needed for Pittsburgh defensemen: Jensen is good at playing defense and limiting rushes.

From The Athletic’s Max Bultman:

Jensen, meanwhile, is one of the Red Wings’ most cost-effective players now, and could potentially be again going forward if they extend him. He should also be an attractive chip even before factoring in his sub-million-dollar cap hit, because his underlying numbers are quite good.

Jensen’s relative Corsi For of 3.13 can be tough to compare against players on good teams, because those organizations’ baseline numbers are high and can alter the “relative” part of the stat. (For instance, in that category, has Jensen’s Rel CF% higher than Victor Hedman, Brent Burns and John Carlson in what is clearly a skewed figure.) But even then, he still comes out looking solid compared with players on similarly possession-deficient teams. He’s only a tick behind the RangersKevin Shattenkirk.

Now, no one is saying Jensen is suddenly in that classification of players, but those numbers do illustrate why he’d be an underrated addition for just about any contender. They also show why it could be in Detroit’s interest to at least try and re-sign him to a manageable figure for the next few seasons.

The Red Wings, of course, don’t need to tie up any big money on new long-term deals, and they also really do need to make space for Hronek. But the fact is Jensen has been one of their most effective blueliners all year. If he wants to stay and Detroit can find workable terms for an extension, there likely won’t be a rush to ship out a still-28-year-old defenseman who’s rating like that unless the return is meaningful.

As Bultman noted, Jensen looks great on a spreadsheet, is 28 years old, right-handed and at a $812,000 cap hit has no real salary implications either. Here’s a peak at him to compare against the season of Jack Johnson:

As usual, Bultman figures Detroit interested in future assets for Jensen. Pittsburgh has a first round pick, which seems overkill for a rental. They don’t have a second rounder this year or next. Figuring out the cost isn’t going to be an issue, as Rutherford is creative and crafty enough to make it happen if he can get an agreeable trade partner and have an interest in this player.

Pick up Jensen and the right side of the Pens defense with Letang and Justin Schultz is all taken care of, and possibly a real strength of the team - with Chad Ruhwedel in a familiar depth position as well.

The left side could then mix and match with Johnson, Marcus Pettersson and Juuso Rikola playing behind Brian Dumoulin. And if Olli Maatta is able to come back this year, that’s all the better! If not, the team at least won’t have to ask Johnson or Riikola to play on the right side where they’ve been absolutely crushed this season.

The Maatta injury though probably flips what Pittsburgh is thinking about doing with dwindling trade assets and cap space. Most of what Rutherford has done at the deadline in Pittsburgh anyways revolves around adding defense depth, and this year should be no different. If Detroit is willing to negotiate, acquiring Jensen makes a ton of sense for Pittsburgh.