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The Penguins should try to exploit NHL weaknesses, not suffer from them

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NHL teams don’t know how to value defensemen and the Penguins should take advantage of it

Chicago Blackhawks v Pittsburgh Penguins Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images

You wouldn’t quite know it from a lack of news right now, but this part of of the calendar year is typically the time NHL teams shuffle the deck and flip players around as they set course for the following season. With July 1st and free agency opening up shop on Monday, business should finally be picking up.

The Penguins still have a lot of work to do, as their general manager has made no secret that he desires to change up his team. And, with $26.4 million committed to defensemen (fifth most in the league currently) the team is still out of whack with too much spent on their defense that still isn’t worth it or balanced out.

Trading Olli Maatta for Dominik Kahun was a necessary start, but just a beginning. It made the team younger, faster and cheaper. All of that good things, but it’s only a start.

Speaking of Maatta, in NHL.com’s preview/update of Chicago’s off-season Maatta’s new GM Stan Bowman had some words about his new defenseman in relation to one of his old ones in Brent Seabrook (edited down a bit for clarity)

The biggest thing is if you look at Seabs in the last couple of years, the one thing that doesn’t get pointed out a lot is we’ve put him in a bit of a tough spot. We’ve always put the young guy with him. We haven’t had a veteran defenseman paired with Seabs for a while. He was with (Slater) Koekkoek, (Gustav) Forsling and (Carl) Dahlstrom...

I think this year we have a chance to help him get back to his level if he’s going to be with a guy who has a better pedigree and is a more experienced guy.

...we now have the capability to put him with (Olli) Maatta or (Calvin) de Haan and all of a sudden it’s like, ‘oh wow, that could look really good.’ We haven’t put him in that position for a long time. In fairness to him, let’s see how that plays out. We can give him a better situation and I think his performance will be benefited by that.

If you’re a Penguins’ fan right now you’re probably laughing. Olli Maatta, going to help prop up a sluggish defensive defenseman who has struggled as of late? Apparently Bowman didn’t pay attention much or put any stock into 2018-19 when Maatta had a career-worst season playing in no small part on a pair with Jack Johnson, a defensive defenseman who has struggled.

The point being, NHL managers can justify a lot of weird and sometimes maybe not-all-that-accurate things that they do. They also evaluate defensemen in various and differing ways. Where there is a will, there usually is a way in the NHL and the 31 different decision makers are all using various approaches.

The Pens want to change, and they should look to their defense to spur the alterations. If there’s one trend in this off-season’s moves, it’s been using cap space. Carolina may have “lost” a trade to send Calvin de Haan to Chicago, but that opened up room for them to “win” by adding Erik Haula from a salary cap-tight Vegas team on a favorable trade.

Similarly, if Pittsburgh could clear a defenseman, even for limited trade return, they would have cap space to go for a forward. Time is of the essence though, since shortly after free agency opens on July 1, all the best forwards will be gobbled up, budgets will be spoken for and business will hunker down typically over the latter half of the summer.

There’s also a bit of speculation perhaps some last ditch effort will be made to move Phil Kessel. Could Pittsburgh convince Arizona to somehow pony up an NHL caliber asset they can use to justify the deal? Or talk to Phil about a change of heart about Minnesota (before they might move on to sign an expensive free agent like Anders Lee or Joe Pavelski s their interest was reported)? Or find a team he can’t block to trade for him? Seems like a long-shot, but it seemed like a long-shot that Pittsburgh and Toronto would make a deal four years ago and we know how that turned out.

Right now Jim Rutherford and the Pens look like the proverbial duck in a pond. At the surface, all looks calm. But just under the waterline and out of eyesight there’s furious movement of the legs.

Soon enough, we will see where all that movement ends up getting them.