The eyes of the hockey world are locked on the 3:00pm eastern trade deadline - and of course the minutes that follow as deals get announced.
What will the Penguins do?
Their course feels more uncertain than it’s been since about this time at 2015 when they also had significant injuries and were in a battle to scrape into the playoffs. That was general manager Jim Rutherford’s first season in Pittsburgh. He made a couple of minor deals around the deadline - acquired bust Daniel Winnik for a second and fourth round pick, flipped Robert Bortuzzo for Ian Cole in a nice upgrade of bottom-pair defensemen, and controversially traded away promising but inconsistent youngster Simon Despres for Ben Lovejoy.
What will happen this time around? From the Trib article hinting less could be more:
Rutherford doesn’t think adding one more player before the 3 p.m. deadline could have any seismic, negative effects on his roster.
“If we were to add somebody else now, it’ll be OK for that player coming in because the other changes that we’ve made, they’ve been made early enough for the guys to adjust,” Rutherford said last week. “It’s not like we’re bringing five or six guys in at the deadline and we’ve only got 20 games left.
“We’ve got guys we brought in. They found a new home in Pittsburgh. They’ve adjusted to the organization, the players. To add one more guy at this point certainly makes it easier, the fact that we got these new guys here in earlier.”
Rutherford has been busy this season. He has already traded away five of the 18 skaters who dressed for the Penguins on opening night against the Washington Capitals.
The latter note stands out. The Pens have made a ton of changes already this season. By dealing Derick Brassard and three draft picks earlier this month to get Nick Bjugstad and Jared McCann they’ve depleted just about all their trade capital too, save a first round pick.
But that was before Saturday night when Brian Dumoulin got concussed and Kris Letang might have suffered a neck injury. Does that change the calculus of how Pittsburgh approaches the deadline? And would it make them more or less aggressive? There’s probably a case for both.
The standings show a precarious stop
It’s a thin line right now between third in the division and fifth in the division and being out of the playoffs. Montreal in the other wildcard spot is in play too.
Basically in a dead heat, the Pens have to be better than the Canadiens in the last 20 games and they’re in the playoffs. Being better than one (or both) of Carolina and Columbus helps the cause. But Columbus has added significant upgrades to their roster and Carolina is one of the league’s best teams in calendar 2019.
So for now, we wait to see Rutherford’s strategy. If Letang’s injury is serious the Pens almost certainly need to add at least a depth defenseman, but as mentioned a real issue is that not many defensemen seem to be available.
Tough situation for Rutherford to navigate, but an important one just the same. His team has only been mediocre and lacking consistency in the last 10-20 (62?) games. Should the burn the first round pick to improve? Even up front the team’s wingers not-named Guentzel and Rust have struggled lately. Pick a spot and there’s likely a reason to feel shaky about the team, but it’s still the Penguins. It’s still Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and a year of health. With times of difficulty comes opportunity, and there’s one here.
Vegas might have an answer in Colin Miller or Jon Merrill, two defensemen our friends at Knights on Ice listed as possibilities to be moved at the deadline:
Miller is one of Vegas’ most valuable assets on the blue line. Despite missing 13 games due to injury, the 26-year-old defenseman still ranks second among all Vegas defensemen with 22 points on the season while remaining a consistent point producer on the man advantage (he currently leads all Knights defensemen with 11 power-play points).
Though Miller has been a key cog on the Golden Knights’ blue line since being selected in the expansion draft, the return for a player of his caliber could be significant. A talented right-shot defenseman on a team-friendly contract worth under $4 million per season could be enough to garner considerable value as the trade deadline looms. And with dynamic young blueliners Erik Brannstrom and Nic Hague in the pipeline, finding an in-house replacement for the offensive-minded defenseman will not be all that difficult.
And for Merrill:
Merrill has had plenty of ups and downs this season. His recent play has been a pleasant surprise, but it’s not hard to understand why he’s spent a good amount of games sitting in the press box. Shockingly, though, Merrill leads all Golden Knights defensemen with a downright superb 57.51 Corsi For percentage at 5-on-5 since Nov. 21. He is also Vegas’ top-ranked defenseman in 5-on-5 HDCF% (59.38) during that span.
While Merrill is far from a perfect player, he does have plenty of upside that other teams may find compelling. He is a regular contributor on the penalty kill and is actually on pace to set a new career high in shots on goal. He comes at the cheap price of $1.375 million with one year remaining on his contract and can serve as a quality bottom-pairing defenseman for team needing depth on the blue line.
It would remain to be seen if the Pens or Golden Knights both feel like making something happen, or if Pittsburgh has anything of interest for Vegas to make a deal happen. But not many teams likely have a surplus of NHL defense, and Vegas probably is one. Miller I believe has been a recent healthy scratch which has made their fans wonder just why he’s seemingly fallen out of favor there.
One final note, don’t get outraged if Teddy Blueger is sent to the AHL today. It’s a paper transaction to retain his AHL playoff eligibility this season. Blueger is the only real candidate on the team this year for such a move.