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Where Penguins’ defense goes after Olli Maatta trade

This can not be the only move for the Pens as the off-season starts, there’s still much work to be done

NHL: Arizona Coyotes at Pittsburgh Penguins Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

As far as late first-round picks are concerned, the Pittsburgh Penguins’ experience with Olli Maatta has to be considered a success. Once you get beyond the top-five or six picks in any draft, the probability of finding a regular NHL drops pretty significantly. And if you look at the 15-20 players taken immediately after Maatta in 2012, it is pretty clear that the Penguins found tremendous value in Maatta.

Even when taking into account the health and injury issues he had to deal with throughout his career, and the fact his career maybe did not turn out quite as expected after a standout rookie year, the fact remains he was a solid NHL defender for six years with the team and is a two-time Stanley Cup champion. There is a lot to be said for that.

It was also true that the Penguins had to make some changes to their defense this summer and Maatta always seemed like one of the likely players to be on the move.

On Saturday, he was when he was traded to the Chicago Blackhawks for Dominik Kahun and a 2019 fifth-round draft pick.

Value for value, it seems to be a fine trade with Kahun definitely matching a big need for the Penguins — young, cheap talent that can bring some youth and speed to a lineup that has gotten older, slower, more expensive and, in some areas, not as good. After a promising rookie season in Chicago there is reason to believe he has the potential to get better and be a useful player.

There is nothing wrong with that aspect of the trade.

The problem is that no matter what your opinion of Maatta was as a player, and for whatever flaws he had, he was still a defender that logged a lot of minutes. Over the past two seasons the only defenders on the team that played more minutes than him have been Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin. That is a lot of minutes to replace. Even when taking into account the struggles of the Penguins defense and how much that unit needs to improve, somebody is going to have to fill those minutes. How confident are you that the replacement in those minutes is going to be an improvement on Olli Maatta?

The internal options, at the moment, do not seem promising.

Obviously Letang and Dumoulin are still going to be at the top of the lineup doing their thing on defense, and barring injury, are going to be one of the best defense pairs in the entire NHL.

After that, there is a pretty steep decline.

Justin Schultz is outstanding in the offensive zone and on the power play but has some glaring shortcomings in the defensive zone, both with defending and and exiting the zone. We know the issues with Jack Johnson, and while Erik Gudbranson had a great start to his Penguins career and exceeded expectations, he has a much larger sampling of NHL performance where he has not been good enough. Were his first couple of months in Pittsburgh the outlier, or the sign of him figuring things out in a new situation with a new team and a fresh start?

The rest of the returning players (and even some of the ones already mentioned) are best suited for third-pairing (or seventh defender) duty, and there is very little help coming through the farm system pipeline.

In short, there is still a lot of work to be done on this blue line, and trading Maatta (even for what seems to be a good return) is not going to be enough to fix it.

Before the trade, the Penguins had a log-jam at the position with too many players at the position to get playing time, but it wasn’t really the good kind of log-jam. They had a lot of players, but they were mostly all the same player that should be playing the same bottom-pairing roles.

At the moment, the Penguins are still going into the 2019-20 season with a second defensive pairing that will likely be made up of Schultz and Johnson, and that is simply not good enough. And now your third-pairing with the absence of Maatta is looking to be not as good.

There have not been many moves from Jim Rutherford that I have agreed with over the past couple of years, and a lot of his moves have accelerated the Penguins’ decline from back-to-back Stanley Cup champion to team that could not even get a win in Round 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. This is one of the few moves during the past two years that I have not had a problem with because it does address a big need. The problem is it also helped create another one in an area where they already had a pretty big need.

For all of Rutherford’s talk about how much he likes this blue line, and for as open and honest as he tends to be in his comments, I still have a hard time believing the defense at the start of training camp is going to look the way it does now. There will no doubt be more changes to that group. There almost certainly has to be because an already weak unit just became a little weaker.