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The Pens need to make another mid-summer magical change

Pittsburgh only needs to look back four years to find a wonderful late-summer trade and signing to help themselve.

Pittsburgh Penguins v Toronto Maple Leafs Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images

By now in the middle of July, most off-season business is concluded around the NHL as the league looks to ride out a hot summer and wait for fall to mercifully bring cooler temps and the return of hockey. Teams may have a stray restricted free agent or two to tighten up, but with the draft complete and the free agent frenzy all but settled, the majority of tasks to accomplish have been completed.

But that doesn’t mean that the action is completed. For the Penguins, it’s certainly not. Their tight salary cap situation will dictate that someone on their NHL roster making a fairly decent-sized paycheck will have to be traded. Most of the stray talk has centered around forwards Bryan Rust, Nick Bjugstad and defenseman Jack Johnson, with perhaps one of the forwards being used to saddle away the defenseman.

We’ll see if that comes to fruition or where the Pens look to trim their salary, but they should also be thinking about opportunities. And they can reach back just a few summers ago in hopes to repeat a mid-summer change.

Summer 2015: the big splash was the Phil Kessel acquisition on July 1. But as the long summer month dragged on, there was more work to do. Pittsburgh was thin up the middle and needed more depth in general.

They made a bold step late in the NHL offseason to correct it. On July 28, to be precise. Trading Brandon Sutter ($3.3 million salary) for Nick Bonino ($1.9 million) and a cheap depth defenseman in Adam Clendening, while also swapping a third-round pick for a second rounder. With the salary savings, Pittsburgh that day was able to sign Eric Fehr to a $2 million salary.

Fast forward that season and Fehr is playing on Evgeni Malkin’s line and Bonino and Kessel are on the electric HBK line, all helping the Penguins to a Stanley Cup championship.

Can history repeat itself?

Let’s hope so.

One interesting, developing case this summer is that of defenseman Jake Gardiner. The 29-year-old was thought of as one of the better players on the market. He’s big (6-foot-2, 205 pounds), can skate pretty well, moves the puck efficiently, and can rack up points (scoring 52 in 2017-18 before dropping a bit to 30 in 62 games in 2018-19).

Yet, Gardiner remains unsigned this deep into free agency. He fought a back injury throughout last season (purportedly healed now, but isn’t that always the rumors floated by a guy who wants a lot of money?), so teams have been scared off. Should the Penguins care? They’ve given more term to riskier gambles and lesser players recently in free agency. Why not another for someone who could be worth it?

That said, the math doesn’t exactly add up perfectly. If the Penguins can somehow trade a Rust plus Johnson duo away and not bring back any salary that clears $6.75 million. Pittsburgh wants to sign Marcus Pettersson longterm if possible, which could eat up half that space. Gardiner made north of $4 million last year and is probably looking for more in his prime years.

The Pens seem overly obsessed with handedness of defensemen lately (even though, naturally, there is a bigger supply of left-handed NHL-caliber defenders), so this makes wonder if Justin Schultz and his $5.5 million contract with one year left could be in play for a mid-summer surprise move. Perhaps not, but Gardiner is a similar type of player who might be able to be signed for cheaper. A top-four of Gardiner, Kris Letang, Brian Dumoulin, and Pettersson for the next few years doesn’t seem the worst idea, even if it would require one player to play the right-side on his off-hand.

No matter how it ends up shaking out, since necessity will demand a trade, hopefully the Penguins can get a little creative with improving their team for next season and beyond. Any trade that sends Johnson away is a win by default to improve on-ice performance, but the team will no doubt be reluctant to pair with a second NHL-caliber defenseman this summer. That’s where Jake Gardiner still being unsigned potentially opens up a new possibility.

Given that some team with cap space can swoop in and offer $5-6 million or something, this isn’t a fool-proof, obvious idea. But like Rutherford found away to drop Sutter and get Bonino and Fehr a few summers ago, if they can maneuver a way to swap out Johnson for Gardiner and still somehow stay cap compliant the outlook for next season would no doubt look a lot brighter.