When you look back on this era of Pittsburgh Penguins hockey, Trevor Daley is not going to be one of the first names you think of.
He will not have a statue outside the arena or his number hanging in the rafters.
But none of that should take away from the impact he made in his very brief tenure with the team.
I thought of this the moment I saw that he retired from the NHL as a player on Monday and joined the Penguins’ front office.
For me, Daley will always be synonymous with the mid-season turnaround during the 2015-16 season that set the stage for back-to-back Stanley Cups. Mostly because he was the first on-ice domino to fall during that roster overhaul.
If you recall, the Penguins looked completely out of it through the first part of the season, lacked an identity, and just seemed to be incapable of doing anything at the level of a contender. That ultimately led to the coaching change that saw Mike Sullivan replace Mike Johnston.
While the coaching change is the move everyone points to, it was not the only thing that put the team in the right direction. A significant chunk of the roster was changed in-season through a series of callups and trades.
Daley was the first of those trades, and it came on the same day that Sullivan coached his first game with the team. It actually happened during the game.
One of the biggest flaws with that Penguins team was a defense that lacked mobility and puck-movers and was playing a declining veteran (Rob Scuderi) that was an obvious liability in too big of a role for too many minutes despite all evidence that showed us what a bad idea it was (sound familiar?!).
But during Sullivan’s debut, the Penguins announced that Scuderi had been traded to the Chicago Blackhawks for Daley. I will never forget sitting in the media level that night and the reactions pouring in.
There had already been a sense of relief that Scuderi was a healthy scratch to start the game, almost if things were going to finally start changing for the better. When it was revealed that he was actually part of a trade, there was a sense of disbelief. They not only traded him, but they got back a legit NHL player that might help?
Trevor Daley is pretty good, right?
That was the immediate reaction I recall having.
His acquisition not only helped the Penguins jettison a liability, but he also helped bring an element that the defense was lacking — mobility.
He ended up becoming a 20-minute per night player for a season-and-a-half and key cog in a defense that was greater than the sum of its parts.
There are two moments that stand out about his time in Pittsburgh as a player.
The first was Game 4 of the 2016 Second Round against the Washington Capitals when Daley played what was probably the game of his life. It could not have come at a better time for the Penguins.
They were leading the series 2-1, but were playing the game without Kris Letang after he was suspended for a Game 3 hit. It left a massive hole on the team’s blue line, and Daley stepped in that night and absolutely shined.
He played a game high 28 minutes (six minutes more than any other player on the team), scored a goal to tie the game mid-way through the first period, and was a plus-3 in a game the Penguins won 3-2 in overtime (they outscored Washington 3-0 with him on the ice during 5-on-5 play).
He was a major — MAJOR — reason the Penguins won that game to take a commanding 3-1 series lead. Who knows what happens if they do not win game. They would have been tied going back to Washington for Game 5 (a game they ended up losing) and could have found themselves in a position where they would have been facing elimination in Game 6 of the series.
That was a turning point game in that series and that season. It gave the Penguins control of the series against the Presidents’ Trophy winning team and helped get them to a championship. Injury may have kept him out of the Stanley Cup Final that year, but he was a huge reason they got there.
The second moment is just the way he played as a part of the 2016-17 defense. That team did not have Letang for most of the season and the entire playoffs, and the defense just managed to make it work with what it had. They did not have a No. 1 defender for that playoff run, and there was not a go-to-player that they could count on for big minutes. It was quite literally a team-wide effort. That team was the only Stanley Cup winner since the start of the 2000 season that did not have a single defenseman average more than 22 minutes of ice-time per game. While they lacked a No. 1 defender, there was simply no weakness that could be exploited anywhere on the defense. It was a team full of solid, even if unspectacular, second-pairing defense that could simply play well together and do what they needed to. Daley was a huge part of that.
He was never a superstar, and it would be easy to remember him as one of those “remember that guy?” players years down the line. But he was the beginning of the turnaround that helped get two more championships, had some massive moments in big games, and is one of the players to have his name on the Stanley Cup two different times as a member of the Penguins.
Do not overlook his contributions, because the Penguins might still be sitting on three Stanley Cups without him.