The Pittsburgh Penguins have $28.1 million of their 2019-20 salary cap based dedicated to six defensemen. According to CapFriendly, that’s the second most currently in the NHL, which it obviously way out of balance from team defensive performance. The club also still has to re-sign restricted free agent Marcus Pettersson, which while it won’t break the bank will be another expense added to the list.
So it makes sense that in order to rebalance the team a bit, salary on defense will have to depart this summer and be allotted to the forward position. The three best candidates to be on the move SHOULD be Jack Johnson, Erik Gudbranson and Olli Maatta.
However it remains to be seen what team-building philosophy Penguins’ general manager Jim Rutherford has this year. You don’t have to go back far (about 11 months ago) to see him ship out his 2017 free agent acquisition Matt Hunwick after one unsuccessful season. By that logic, Johnson ought not to be safe, though with four years remaining on his contract and some questionable management outlook on him, the worst defenseman on the team may be back.
Ditto Gudbranson, who the team seems very fond of after his strong performance for the Pens since joining the team. However at $4.0 million cap hit, Gudbranson is a luxury as a 16-minute a night third pair defenseman who adds very little in terms of supporting breakouts and playmaking. But his size and decent finish will probably buy him a start to the season in Pittsburgh.
This leaves Maatta as the odd man out. It’s east to see that the Finnish defenseman is out of favor with the team, he was a healthy scratch for the final three games of the playoffs. Maatta had a terrible 2018-19 season, dragged down mostly by sub-replacement level partners like Johnson and rookie Juuso Riikola. Maatta will be drawing $4.08 million off the salary cap, which also makes him a great candidate to be moved in order to restructure the team’s money allocations. Maatta is still young, a two-time Stanley Cup champion, a nice pedigree as a former first round pick and when he’s on his game is a very good second pair defensive defenseman, which should make him an intriguing target for teams around the league.
Who should the Pens try to look at in return? These are the calls I would try to make to find out, looking at some similar salaries of forwards around the league..
Contract status: five years remaining at $5.0 million cap hit
This might be an impossibility, since Johnson has a full no trade clause, but his name is mentioned in trade rumors. The Lightning are a bit like the Penguins in that they may need to shake some salaries around. This move only saves them a million dollars in the difference, so they might need to make more drastic type in order to get right.
Contract status: three more seasons at $4.5 million
The Maple Leafs are presumably looking to replace free agent-to-be Jake Gardiner, so Maatta would be a fit for them here. Kadri has had his difficulties playing within the rules, but almost like a Matt Cooke type he is very effective on a third line when he’s playing smart. A change might do him well, and it’s made the rounds that Toronto might be looking move on from Kadri after his latest suspension.
Assuming he cleaned up his act to within the rules, this would definitely solve Pittsburgh’s ongoing issue about third line center and could free Jared McCann and Nick Bjugstad up for roles on the wings.
Contract status: three more seasons at $3.9 million cap hit
This might be a short phone call since Shaw is coming off a career-high 47 point season in 2018-19, but you never know what Canadiens’ GM Marc Bergevin might be thinking. So it’s worth to see if anything can be sorted out.
Contract status: one more year at $4.3 million
Frolik checked in at #6 on TSN’s trade bait list (where Phil Kessel was #1), so he could be available. The player once nicknamed “Baby Jagr” — thus the #67 jersey he wears — would feel pretty fitting to play for Jagr’s first NHL team. Frolik pretty reliably generates 30-40 points a season and away has strong possession numbers.
Contract status: three seasons at $4.0 million
Rask, who scored 48 and 45 points from 2015-17 with Carolina did not benefit from a mid-season trade to Minnesota. Rask only scored three points (2g+1a) in 23 games with the Wild, quite the jolt.
So sort of like Maatta this could be a player that needs a new start to get the best out of his game. At 26 years old, Rask would be similar in age to Maatta and their salaries are about identical too. It would be a risk to assume that Rask could get back to his Carolina form, but sometimes for two “buy low” candidates make the best match.