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The Penguins will look to move a defenseman, but which one and how is critical

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Will the Pens use an opportunity to improve, or spin their wheels?

Pittsburgh Penguins v Arizona Coyotes Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Fresh off calling the list of defensemen this best group in his tenure, Jim Rutherford is already going to break them up.

“It’s good to be in the position we’re in,” Rutherford told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Monday afternoon. “We’re in a stronger position now than we were a year ago or maybe even a couple years ago.

“But it will be difficult to keep all of our defensemen and keep them happy. I’m sure with the amount of teams who are looking for defensemen, we’ll have to move at least one.”

That much is obvious, being as the Penguins already have six defensemen under contract for $3.25+ million next season, without counting Pettersson who needs to be re-signed and is probably better than half the guys under contract already. And for the results they get, that’s not worthy of “spend top 5 or top 10 money in the league on this position” type of area that they’re in.

As mentioned last week, the real test Rutherford will be under is how he addresses rebuilding the second pair. With Brian Dumoulin and Kris Letang, you’ve got a great first pairing. Moving to the bottom of the lineup Marcus Pettersson and Erik Gudbranson, ehh they worked well enough together to be a passable third pair that has the size and “push back” that is so clearly important to the general manager.

So if the move is just to trade Olli Maatta for a forward and put eggs in the dreadful Jack Johnson - Justin Schultz pair that got horrible results this season, well, the Pens are likely to be in the situation in spring 2020 as they found themselves right now — not legitimate contenders for a championship.

However, Rutherford’s resourcefulness in the trade market will be necessary to wiggle out of the situation of his own design by signing Johnson to a five-year contract in the first place. NHL GM’s value Johnson, could the Pens trade him and retain some salary? Possibly use a sweetener to the deal like a player or draft pick? Or, the ideal situation- recreate the Rob Scuderi for Trevor Daley transaction where you deal a struggling vet for a guy with a similar contract in a bad situation?

Tough question but one worth exploring and now there’s plenty of time to scan the market and do the due diligence to identify which teams would have which players available that might be value-wise a good fit for both parties.

Another piece of the puzzle absolutely is Maatta. If the Pens can flip him to Los Angeles for Alec Martinez (similar salary on both players, rational for LA would be to get much younger) and then find a way out from Johnson, suddenly adding a Martinez-Schultz second pair to the existing groups looks really good for Pittsburgh moving forward.

If the LA idea is shot down - Minnesota and Nashville, among other teams have a potential targets of top-4 defensemen under contract in the $3-5 million range and might be looking for a shakeup. Would Maatta make sense for them?

If not there, plenty of other teams are left in the league with the overall idea to shop Maatta for a similar player as him (youngish LD with decent puck skills and a top-4 NHL history, a $3-5 million salary that has a couple years term on it and a player and/or team that also had a down year and might consider a change of scenery).

Whether it’s Maatta or Johnson, it’s almost a guarantee a defenseman from Pittsburgh will be traded this summer. They just make too much money and as a whole just aren’t worth it. How Rutherford handles that issue is likely to be the major factor and opportunity to re-shape the Pens into an improved or weakened group next season. It will be critical for him to first identify the issues (i.e. Maatta and Johnson both looking like problems) and finding a way to use the assets available to find a capable partner for Schultz to play with.